Skip to content

Judge: When Bill of Rights was composed, bulletin boards were what blogs are today

There has been much discussion of last week’s decision dismissing a criminal case against a man accused of stalking and harassing a religious leader on Twitter.

As reported by the New York Times’ Somini Sengupta (@SominiSengupta),

The government had accused the defendant, William Lawrence Cassidy, of harassing and causing “substantial emotional distress” to a Buddhist religious leader named Alyce Zeoli. He had posted thousands of messages about her, some predicting her violent death. He lived in California, she in Maryland.

In his 27-page order (pdf), Judge Roger W. Titus wrote that “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.”

Lost in the discussion was Judge Titus’ analogy to the colonial time, when the Bill of Rights was written.

A blog, he said, is like a bulletin board that a person of that time might have planted in his front yard. “If one colonist wants to see what is on another’s bulletin board, he would need to walk over to his neighbor’s yard and look at what is posted, or hire someone else to do so,” he offered.

With Twitter, he went on, news from one colonist’s bulletin board could automatically show up on another’s. The postings can be “turned on or off by the owners of the bulletin boards,” he wrote. In other words, one can disregard what is posted on a bulletin board. “This is in sharp contrast to a telephone call, letter or e-mail specifically addressed to and directed at another person,” he concluded.

Like Hanni Fakhoury, (@HanniFakhoury) a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I like the distinction the judge drew between speech on a public platform, versus through e-mail or telephone.

Blogs and Twitter are today’s open forum for discussion. Unlike an email or telephone call, blogs and Twitter are open discussion for all to comment on, discuss, and engage. They’re free speech at the finest.

This is a district court decision, not a ruling from the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court. Nonetheless, UCLA Law Professor, Eugene Volokh (@VolokhC), a well respected scholar on free speech and the net, told Sengupta on the decision, “This is an area where there has been very little case law, it is likely to be quite influential.”