Prosecutors in Maryland are employing a federal anti-stalking law to charge a man who used the Internet to make unkind statements about a public figure with “intent to harass and cause emotional distress.” Civil libertarians are beseeching the court to dismiss the case as a violation of First Amendment guarantees of free speech.
William Cassidy was charged in the U.S. District Court of Maryland with stalking Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo (formerly Alyce Zeoli), founder of the Kunzang Palyul Choling Buddhist temple in Poolesville, Maryland, after he posted negative comments about her on his Twitter account and blog.
A federal law originally enacted to criminalize traveling across state lines for the purpose of stalking was modified in 2005 to make the “intentional infliction of emotional distress” by the use of “any interactive computer service” a crime.
“The ability to criticize public figures is a well-established part of the First Amendment,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation Media Relations Director Rebecca Jeschke. “We can’t have the specter of criminal charges hanging over our heads when we want to express our opinions.”
The San Francisco-based EFF filed a friend of the court brief in late July. In the brief, EFF asked the court to block the use of the anti-stalking law and dismiss the Cassidy’s indictment.
“Real threats can and should be prosecuted, but the law must respect Americans’ right to speak freely online, even when some find those opinions offensive or unpopular,” Jeschke said.
Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of Infotech & Telecom News.
United States v. Cassidy, Electronic Frontier Foundation, July 29, 2011: https://www.eff.org/cases/us-v-cassidy