The FBI brought William Lawrence Cassidy to trial for sending more than 8,000 distressing tweets over 2 months, to a leader of a Buddhist group. During that time, he threatened her life and wrote tweet haikus containing disturbing images of violence. His efforts scared her so much that she refused to leave her house for 18 months, but the judge overseeing the case ruled that Cassidy’s tweets were protected speech under the First Amendment, as they appeared on a public bulletin-board-like forum.
The judge said:
“…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.”
According to the New York Times, the judge compared Twitter to communications during the colonial period:
He said, “A blog is like a bulletin board that a person of [the colonial period] 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.”
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,” the judge concluded.