Judge: Prosecution of Online Critic Under Anti-Stalking Law Is Unconstitutional
San Francisco - A federal district court judge in Maryland today blocked the government's use of a federal anti-stalking law to prosecute a man for posting insults and criticism of a public figure to Twitter, ruling that "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."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed an amicus brief in this case, arguing that the revised federal anti-stalking statute – expanded in 2006 as part of the Violence Against Women Act to criminalize causing emotional distress by means of an "interactive computer service" – was unconstitutionally vague and ran afoul of First Amendment protections as an unlawful content-based restriction. EFF argued that even though some criticism of public figures may be offensive, emotional distress was not a sufficient basis on which to criminalize speech.
"Speech on social networking sites – as with speech anywhere – has the potential to inform and enlighten as well as to outrage," said Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman. "It is imperative that courts recognize and uphold First Amendment protections in order to give all manner of expression sufficient breathing space to thrive online. No speaker should be threatened with prosecution – let alone held in jail as Mr. Cassidy was here – on the basis of allegations of 'offensive' speech."
Judge Roger W. Titus ruled today that the expanded federal statute was unconstitutional as applied to the use of Twitter to publicly post criticism of the religious leader discussed in this case. While she is not named in court documents, the judge noted that she "is 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 [the sect's] beliefs and [her] qualifications as a leader." Citing the Supreme Court's seminal 1964 ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the court noted that "the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public concern is the core of the First Amendment Protections, even where speech includes 'vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks.'"
"We are grateful that the court recognized the critical First Amendment issues at stake in this case," said Staff Attorney Hanni Fakhoury. "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."
Having found the statute to violate the First Amendment as applied in this case, Judge Titus declined to rule on whether the statute was facially unconstitutional. William Cassidy will be released next week unless the government seeks a stay and appeals the ruling.
For the full order in U.S. v. Cassidy:
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Electronic Frontier Foundation