Judge Finds That Man Accused of Twitter “Cyber Stalking” Was Exercising First Amendment Rights

Cyber crimes represent a challenge for prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys alike. They are forever pushing the boundaries of cyber space and brushing against the line between free speech and criminal acts. It is easy for innocent net surfers to be caught in an investigator’s net, just as it is easy for many cyber criminals to evade detection.

A recent decision in a case of Twitter “cyber stalking” demonstrates the challenge of defining what makes a cyber crime. William Lawrence Cassidy, a resident of California, began posting thousands of messages about a Buddhist religious leader named Alice Zeoli who lived in Maryland. Cassidy was once involved with Zeoli on a romantic and professional level. After their relationship went sour, Cassidy began posting on Twitter under numerous pseudonyms, leaving cheerful messages such as: “Do the world a favor and go kill yourself.” Cassidy was later charged with violating a federal stalking statute. However, a federal judge in Maryland, Roger Titus, ruled that Cassidy’s messages were speech protected by the First Amendment.

Although Cassidy’s speech may have caused substantial emotional distress, the judge wrote, it covered time-honored First Amendment subject matter such as anonymous “uncomfortable” speech addressing religious issues. Judge Titus drew an analogy between a modern-day blog and a bulletin board during colonial times. A blog was like a bulletin board that a person in those days would have put in his front yard. If a colonist wanted to see what was on a neighbor’s board, he or she had to go over and look at what was posted. A Twitter post was like news from one colonist’s board showing up on another colonist’s board. The other person could simply turn it off and “disregard” the message. It lacked the impact of a telephone call or email that is directed at a specific person.

Whether or not the analogy works (and it’s debatable), the bottom line is that Judge Titus thinks that Cassidy’s behavior is not stalking, with the intent to harass and cause substantial emotional distress. Cassidy’s behavior was venting — in perhaps some very nasty ways, but still ways that do not amount to a criminal act.

This episode just demonstrates, as a law professor from University of California at Los Angeles noted, that there is very little case law surrounding cyber stalking. Many believe that the Cassidy case will set the tone for cases to come. It is heartening to see that at least some case law will take the position that free speech on the Internet is important, even when it’s the kind that no one wants to defend.

As cyber crimes expand, often including several types of white collar crime, so do the investigations. The result is innocent people getting accused of crimes they never committed, or people guilty of light crimes getting hit with heavy sentences. In both cases, they need a criminal defense attorney to defend them. It used to be seen as a matter of course that investigators could hold any small activity against you. Maybe the times are changing.