A federal judge has dismissed a criminal case against a man charged with stalking a religious leader on Twitter on the grounds that the more than 8,000 messages he posted, some predicting her violent death, were protected by the US constitution.
Thursday's ruling by US District Judge Roger W. Titus of Maryland was among the first to scrutinize a 2006 amendment to a federal anti-stalking law that extended it to the internet and other online forums. The decision dismissed criminal charges against William Lawrence Cassidy, who used multiple Twitter accounts to sharply criticize a religious figure identified only by the initials A.Z.
“Although in bad taste, Mr. Cassidy’s Tweets and Blog posts about A.Z. challenge her character and qualifications as a religious leader,” Titus wrote in the 27-page ruling (PDF). “And, 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.”
The New York Times identified the target of the tweets as Buddhist religious leader Alyce Zeoli. An attorney for Zeoli told the paper her client was “appalled and frightened by the judge’s ruling.”
Attorneys for The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, hailed the decision as a victory for free speech online.
“We are grateful that the court recognized the critical First Amendment issues at stake in this case,” Staff Attorney Hanni Fakhoury, said in a statement. “Law enforcement may have disagreed with the tone and content of Mr. Cassidy's speech, but the police hauling a Twitter user to jail for offending a public figure was the greater harm.”
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, writing on The Volokh Conspiracy blog, also praised the decision as “a substantial victory for free speech.” ®