Is Twitter the New Soapbox?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

How do you cope with "cyberstalking"? Do you ignore your offenders, block them, or file a law suit against them? These were the choices presented to Alyce Zeoli, a Buddhist leader based in Maryland, as reported by Somini Sengupta in the New York Times. Zeoli received over 8,000 harassing messages via Twitter from a disgruntled former member of her Buddhist group, William Lawrence Cassidy.

The case filed against Cassidy walks a fine line. Should Cassidy’s actions be considered harassment or be protected by his right to freedom of speech.

The rapid introduction of social media into today’s society leaves many cases such as this open ended. An important decision must be made in this case. Should posts on social media sites such as Twitter be seen as printed material or viewed as free expression much like a speaker on a soap box.

If Cassidy’s tweets are viewed a print material, New York Times v. Sullivan comes to mind as Zeoli is considered by many a public figure. If twitter is deemed a digital soapbox, Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire. In both cases, I think Mr. Cassidy’s defense team has its work cut out for it as it seems malice should be easy to prove given the nature of the harassing tweets.

As US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer outlines in his book Active Liberty, liberty must expand and contract as society needs. I am very interested to observe the outcome of Mr. Cassidy’s trial as it will help shape the interaction between social media and the First Amendment.


David Wiley August 29, 2011 at 4:26 PM  

This sort of confusion is going on everywhere. Last week there were riots in London that were managed primarily through the use of Twitter. The UK government was considering having cell phone providers, Twitter, and Facebook shut down in the event of another similar occurrence. How drastic of a precedence would that have set for the rest of the world's governments had they succeeded?

There are many good and bad things to take away from the emergence of this social media frenzy. Look at how Twitter is being used by journalists to unleash a torrent of breaking news. There were 1,200 tweets from one journalist over the course of a weekend during the Triploi rebellion. Ten years ago most of us wouldn't have known a thing until the nightly news, and even that would have merited only a few minutes of air time.

There are going to be those who abuse these social media platforms,much like Mr. Cassidy did with his harassing messages. He won't be the last one to do so. But I firmly believe that our government will make the right decision in this case. Our freedom of speech should not be violated, but there are exceptional cases like this where something should be done.

Lyndsy Darland August 29, 2011 at 6:56 PM  

When Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, etc. were established I believe they anticipated this type of controversy. All of these social media platforms have provided the option to block whomever is creating unwanted posts/messages. However, in some cases there are people who will continually create new accounts and perpetuate their behavior under alias'. I do see both sides. Freedom to do this is constitutionally relevant, but the reverse side of that coin is no one should be allowed to continually detract from peaceful activities. See the following:,2933,312018,00.html. A news story from 2007 highlights how a fraudulent account attacking a teenage girl may have led to her suicide. I am just glad I am not the one who has to make the decision at this juncture if there should be legal action here or if it is protected under the constitution.

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