If our dear readers look at my past blog posts, you might think I’m vying for a Bloggie Award* for “Most Posts Related to Social Media.” As someone who personally spends a fair amount of time keeping up with my friends/news outlets/favorite restaurants through social media, many of the legal disputes that catch my eye examine the intersection of free speech and social media — after all, it’s good to know where the line between lawful and actionable is drawn, even though I don’t think I’m likely to step over it. (Plus, I think I’m now allowed to bill my workplace Facebook/Twitter time as “researching blog post.”)
Usually, when something goes legally haywire with social media, it’s because Courtney Love defamed someone on Twitter again. Last month, though, a Maryland federal court has shined a (27-page) light on the criminal law of cyberstalking. Under a semi-obscure provision of the Violence Against Women Act — codified at 18 U.S.C. § 2261A for you legal eagles out there — federal law makes it a crime when an individual “uses the mail, any interactive computer service, or any facility of interstate or foreign commerce to engage in a course of conduct that causes substantial emotional distress” to someone “with the intent to kill, injure, harass, or place under surveillance with intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person in another State.”
This law may have come as some surprise to defendant William Lawrence Cassidy, who was charged with cyberstalking based on his more than 8,000 posts on blogs and Twitter about Alyce Zeoli, a Buddhist leader (and quite the avid Tweeter herself). The court’s recitation of facts describes Alyce Zeoli, or “A.Z.” as a “reincarnate llama,” but I’m pretty sure the court really meant lama (as in Tibetan teacher of the Dharma) rather than llama (as in South American camelid). In any event (actually, probably especially if she is, indeed, an alpaca), Ms. Zeoli — the so-called “Buddha from Brooklyn” — is already quite the controversial figure.
Cassidy’s posts and Tweets ranged from threatening comments (“ya like haiku? Here’s one for ya: ‘Long, Limb, Sharp Saw, Hard Drop’ ROFLMAO”**) to criticism of Zeoli as a religious figure (“[A.Z.] is a demonic force who tries to destroy Buddhism”) to just vague creepiness (“owl and raven feathers separate….tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock”). Cassidy moved to dismiss the charges against him, and on December 15, the court granted his motion, holding that Cassidy’s speech was protected by the First Amendment and that the restriction didn’t pass scrutiny and dismissed the charges against him.
So what lessons can you take from Cassidy’s case the next time you’re ready to dive into the Twitterverse? Continue reading the full story . . . »