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Tweets Were Free Speech, Not Cyberstalking, Federal Judge Rules

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. | Last updated on

Twitter stalking is free speech, according to a federal judge in Maryland. Well, at least when the tweets don't constitute true threats or defamation.

The FBI arrested William Lawrence Cassidy in February after receiving complaints from Alyce Zeoli, a Buddhist leader. The two had been friends, but a falling out led to some heated exchanges. Cassidy sent 8,000 tweets and created a number of blog posts about Zeoli, including pleas for her to kill herself.

Zeoli's ability to ignore those messages factored heavily in the judge's decision.

Cassidy was charged under a 2006 amendment to the Violence Against Women Act. The statute made it illegal to intentionally harass someone over the Internet such that it causes substantial emotional distress.

Though Twitter stalking is frowned upon, it's quite different from other forms of harassment. The judge likened blogs and Twitter to bulletin boards. They only communicate with those who voluntarily choose to read what is posted. Even direct (private) messages on Twitter are limited to persons who choose to follow one another.

Unlike email and phone calls, Zeoli had the choice to ignore these communications, according to the judge. And even if she couldn't, the messages were not truly threatening or defamatory. They were "vulgar" and sexually explicit, but they mostly criticized Zeoli's fitness to be a religious leader.

Such speech is traditionally protected by the Constitution.

Though this ruling protects "anonymous, uncomfortable Internet speech," it does not legalize Twitter stalking. Credible threats and defamatory statements are not protected by the Constitution. And Twitter stalking in conjunction with other harassment may be viewed differently.

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