Federal authorities recently arrested a man for sending a Buddhist leader threatening tweets, prompting questions over freedom of speech on social networking websites.
The FBI this weekend jailed William Cassidy of California on charges of online stalking, after the FBI accused him of sending 8,000 Twitter messages to Maryland-based Buddhist leader Alyce Zeoli and her religious group.
According to the New York Post, Cassidy’s tweets included messages predicting horrible disasters for Zeoli and her group, in addition to other tweets such as “Do the world a favor and go kill yourself. P.S. Have a nice day.”
The FBI said the tweets made Zeoli fear for her life, and she hid at home for 18 months and hired armed security guards. In addition to the 8,000 messages on Twitter, Cassidy also allegedly posted blog entries threatening Zeoli.
Zeoli reported Cassidy had joined her Buddhist group for some time, but she and the group asked him to leave after questions surfaced about his claimed illness. The threats started after the group asked Cassidy to leave, Zeoli alleged.
Authorities tracked Cassidy through his IP address to his California home. The FBI said Cassidy had used an ever-changing series of user names on Twitter, making it difficult for them to track him down.
Cassidy’s case has sparked a debate over the issue of free speech on Twitter, as legal authorities attempt to ascertain what the lines are governing social media.
Cassidy’s attorneys say the government should protect tweets the same way the First Amendment protects even offensive speech, even when it’s on a public platform such as Twitter.
Legal scholars say the case argues what can be said online about a public figure, such as a religious leader, because Twitter and other social media sites can be compared to other forms of public speech. Courts have upheld the speech rights of controversial groups when their comments were made in a public forum, saying people have a right to criticize public leaders.
Free speech advocates are concerned about Cassidy’s arrest because they believe it may violate First Amendment rights and say the arrest may hinder free speech online.
“While not all speech is protected by the First Amendment, the idea that the courts must police every inflammatory word spoken online not only chills freedom of speech but is unsupported by decades of First Amendment jurisprudence,” said the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is calling for the case to be dismissed.
According to the FBI, though, officers didn’t arrest Cassidy for his opinions, but because his tweets caused Zeoli “substantial emotional distress.”
Cassidy’s weekend arrest is one of a series of crackdowns in recent months that have also raised questions about freedom of speech online. For example, rapper “The Game” is in trouble over tweeting a phone number to more than a half million followers, telling them to call the number if they were interested in applying for an internship with him. The number was actually that of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and “The Game” was charged with obstructing police officers and interrupting communications.
While more young people and adults sign up for social network sites every day, such arrests may well become more commonplace. In response to escalating cases, the courts and society will need to navigate the nature of online speech, public forums, and harassment. Judging from recent arrests, those who believe they can threaten others online because they either feel they can say whatever they want — or because they think they’re anonymous and won’t be caught — may increasingly find themselves in trouble with the law.