If 18th-century colonists were alive today, U.S. District Judge Roger Titus imagines that they would draw a parallel between public bulletin boards and Twitter and blogs.
Titus, of U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, ruled in an opinion (PDF) yesterday that just as the colonists drafted the First Amendment with those public bulletin boards in mind, the same protections should be afforded to Tweets and other posts online.
A federal grand jury indicted (PDF) William Cassidy in February of one count of interstate stalking, a federal crime. Titus granted Cassidy's motion to dismiss (PDF) the case, finding that “while Mr. Cassidy’s speech may have inflicted substantial emotional distress, the Government's Indictment here is directed squarely at protected speech: anonymous, uncomfortable Internet speech addressing religious matters.”
According to Titus' opinion, the trouble began when Cassidy was introduced in 2007 to the regional leader of a sect of Buddhism based in Poolesville, Md. The leader, known in court papers as A.Z., is an “enthroned tulku,” according to Titus’ opinion, meaning she is a leader by lineage within her community. According to the prosecutor’s affidavit, Cassidy claimed to be a tulku when he first met A.Z., but in February 2008, A.Z. learned he was not a tulku and confronted him. Cassidy left and, according to prosecutors, began using Twitter and online posts to “harass” A.Z. and her place of worship.
Subpoenas linked Cassidy to Twitter accounts with thousands of tweets about A.Z. and the place where she practiced. The Tweets were grouped into five basic categories: threats directed at A.Z.; criticism of A.Z. as a religious figure and criticism of her center; derogatory statements directed towards A.Z.; responses to A.Z. and the center; and statements that may or may not be directed towards A.Z.
A.Z. told prosecutors that the Tweets and other online posts made her fear for her safety. Cassidy pleaded not guilty to the charge in May and, represented by Lauren Case and Ebise Bayisa of the Office of the Federal Defender, moved for dismissal in July. He was supported by an amicus brief (PDF) from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group based in San Francisco.
“This case rests on Mr. Cassidy’s sometimes sophomoric, irreverent and obnoxious posts on his own Twitter feed and blog,” his attorneys wrote in the motion. With some limited exceptions that don’t apply, they added, “the Supreme Court has never allowed for criminal liability simply because the protected speech in question offended the listener.”
The government countered (PDF) that that statute was specifically intended to curb “conduct intended to torment people to the point that the victim suffers substantial emotional distress…There is no constitutionally protected right to harass or intimidate, and the First Amendment provides no shelter for such conduct.” The National Center for Victims of Crime1 and Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center submitted an amicus brief (PDF) in support of the government.
Titus, in granting Cassidy’s motion, wrote that even if A.Z. suffered emotional distress from Cassidy’s Tweets and writing, the government’s indictment wasn’t limited to categories of speech that clearly fall outside of the First Amendment – “obscenity, fraud, defamation, true threats, incitement or speech integral to criminal conduct.”
Furthermore, he wrote, A.Z. had the option of not looking at Cassidy’s Tweets or online posts. “Twitter and Blogs are today’s equivalent of a bulletin board that one is free to disregard, in contrast, for example, to e-mails or phone calls directed to a victim.”
The U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment. Case said that “what was gratifying in this case was that Judge Titus saw what the case was and what it was not.”
“There are existing statutes that have been around for a long time that deal with constitutionally-unprotected speech. And this case did not involve any of that,” Case said.