Twitter stalking case dismissed by Maryland judge

The Judge said that protections under the First Amendment extend to online speech

A U.S. judge in Maryland dismissed on Thursday a criminal case against a person who was charged with stalking a religious leader on Twitter, upholding "a tradition of protecting anonymous speech, particularly anonymous political or religious speech".

District Judge Roger W. Titus of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland also observed that the religious figure could have protected her sensibilities simply by averting her eyes from the defendant's blog and not looking at, or blocking his messages on Twitter.

Even though the Internet is the newest medium for anonymous, uncomfortable expression touching on political or religious matters, online speech is equally protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as there is no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to online speech, Judge Titus noted.

There are certain "well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech" such as obscenity, defamation, fraud, and speech integral to criminal conduct that remain unprotected by the First Amendment, the Judge added.

Defendant, William Lawrence Cassidy, invoked the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, after he was charged with violating a federal stalking statute.

His speech does not fall into any of the recognized exceptions to protection under the First Amendment, the Judge said. The First Amendment protects speech even when the subject or manner of expression is uncomfortable and challenges conventional religious beliefs, political attitudes or standards of good taste, he added.

Section 2261A is an interstate stalking statute originally passed as part of the Violence against Women's Act, but was broadened in 2006 to include as intent not only the intent to "kill or injure," but include the intent to "harass or place under surveillance with the intent to . . . harass or intimidate or cause substantial emotional distress", the Judge said.

The requisite action was also broadened so as to bring within the scope of the law a course of conduct that merely "causes substantial emotional distress", he added. The 2006 changes also expanded the mechanisms of injury to add use of an "interactive computer service" to the existing list which already included use of mail or any facility of interstate or foreign commerce.

Cassidy allegedly violated the statute by intentionally causing substantial emotional distress to the religious leader on Twitter and blogs, according to the government.

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 Judge said.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which filed an amicus brief in this case, also pointed out that the religious leader was not merely a private individual but rather an easily identifiable public figure that leads a religious sect, and that many of the defendant's statements relate to beliefs of the sect and her qualifications as a leader, the Judge said.

"Thus, this statute sweeps in the type of expression that the Supreme Court has consistently tried to protect," he added.

EFF said in a statement on Thursday that it argued that even though some criticism of public figures may be offensive, emotional distress was not a sufficient basis on which to criminalize speech.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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