Skip

Save Our Snark!
August 1, 2011 1:40 PM   Subscribe

William Lawrence Cassidy has been indicted for a series of threatening tweets directed towards Alyce Zeoli, aka Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, the leader of a Buddhist organization known as Kunzang Palyul Choling (KPC) to which Cassidy had belonged. There is however a small problem that federal prosecutors are employing a vague anti-stalking law that makes 'intentional infliction of emotional distress' through the use of 'any interactive computer service' a felony, rather than focussing more narrowly upon the outright threats.

Law360 has a paywalled article. And there are weirder sources for the timecube fans.
posted by jeffburdges (34 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
a vague anti-stalking law that makes 'intentional infliction of emotional distress' through the use of 'any interactive computer service' a felony,

Relatedly, we are all under arrest.
posted by mhoye at 1:43 PM on August 1, 2011 [11 favorites]


Some details of his alleged tweets and misdeeds.

This sounds less like a free speech case and more like creepy felon stalks woman and threatens her over the Internet.
posted by humanfont at 1:50 PM on August 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Persons seeking the path of truth do not taunt and seek to hurt others through hateful and demeaning epithets directed at women and sexual orientation. That is not an esoteric concept but common decency.

Be it because it's a Buddhist belief or otherwise, the world would be a much better place if more people could embrace this way of thinking.

Or, you know, "Do unto others..." could work too...
posted by quin at 1:52 PM on August 1, 2011


It seems like the statutes can be used for outright threats as well as emotional distress. Considering that there were threats made, it seems like an appropriate use of the statute.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:57 PM on August 1, 2011


To sum up, the Jetsons is much more complex and effecting story in its original five year epic format, in stark contrast to the horrendous dubbed version that made it to the west.
posted by biffa at 2:36 PM on August 1, 2011


A book about Alyce Zeoli.
posted by novalis_dt at 2:42 PM on August 1, 2011


humanfont: “Some details of his alleged tweets and misdeeds. This sounds less like a free speech case and more like creepy felon stalks woman and threatens her over the Internet.”

Good lord. That is some scary, weird, frightening stuff.

There is a line between 'snark' and 'unimaginably violent and brutal threats which constitute unlawful harassment.' This guy crossed that line about two hundred miles back. He should go to jail for a long, long time.

And his real-life stalking of this person should be enough to demonstrate that this is not a case of "free speech" but a case of scary stalkery threats. Seriously, what is up with the frighteningly offensive framing of this post?

And why the hell would you name the victim?
posted by koeselitz at 3:04 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ah, I see – she's a public figure. Well, anyway... this still seems like an odd "there are two sides to this story" kind of thing.
posted by koeselitz at 3:05 PM on August 1, 2011


Think of all the philosophers who are posting comments to Youtube. They should be more careful not to inflict distress.
posted by etherist at 3:20 PM on August 1, 2011


There is a free speech component here in that prosecutors may expand a poorly worded law's reach while trying to maximize Cassidy's sentence.

I'd expect & hope that Cassidy will do time for the threats no matter what, but we don't need a poorly worded verdict that complicates life for people criticizing the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch, etc.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:21 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is it the EFF's position that people can not use the internet as a tool to stalk or harass other people?

If I am in a public work environment and a coworker broadcasts a message that I consider to be harassment (even if I wasn't intended as the target), isn't that harassment? Why is broadcasting something over Twitter different?
posted by muddgirl at 3:51 PM on August 1, 2011


Or I guess their problem is specifically with the wording "substantive emotional distress?" What wording is used in other legal contexts when it comes to stalking and harassment?
posted by muddgirl at 3:52 PM on August 1, 2011


That should be "substantial."
posted by muddgirl at 3:52 PM on August 1, 2011


Also, it seems to me that the facts of this case fit the tighter standard that the EFF mentions:
25. These continual communications... have caused Victim 1 substantial emotional distress, and have caused Victim 1 to fear for her own safety and the safety of KPC members. The consequences of this harassment has forced Victim 1 not to leave her home in a year and a half except going to meet her psychiatrist....
I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know what it means if a vaguely-written law is applied "properly." It would be a shame if this guy got less time than he should due to poor wording.
posted by muddgirl at 4:00 PM on August 1, 2011


But wasn't she also hit with a restraining order? There's a lot of back story to KPC, the property, and so on. It's a very tangled world.

Part of the Law360 link says

The Electronic Frontier Foundation on Friday filed an amicus brief in a federal stalking case in Maryland, arguing that interstate stalking charges against a man who allegedly wrote threatening messages on his Twitter account are unconstitutional.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:18 PM on August 1, 2011


The girlfriend of the main guy under indictment attempted to get a restraining order against her and failed.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:31 PM on August 1, 2011


There were already state warrants out for this guys arrest, suggesting he faces felony level harassment-like charges for exactly this behavior already, muddgirl.

I donno why federal prosecutors got involved with this exceedingly broad law, but any the more traditional charges don't go away just because he used twitter.

Btw, there are pretty serious federal penalties for workplace harassment already, including sections in the Civil Rights Act, but presumably most states have their own laws that'll handle that more efficiently now.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:07 PM on August 1, 2011


Cassidy seems like a major asshole, but I'm having trouble seeing anything actionable in the criminal complaint.
posted by fivebells at 6:19 PM on August 1, 2011


Is it the EFF's position that people can not use the internet as a tool to stalk or harass other people?

It is not. You can read a the EFF's amicus brief here (pdf).

The EFF's position is that the anti-stalking statute prohibits stalkers from using the Internet for surveillance--tracking their victim's activities, reading their email, and so forth. The tweets here, by contrast, are public statements about a public figure, and so, according to the EFF, they do not fall under the anti-stalking statute. Further, the fact that the public statements cause the public figure distress is not--and ought not be--enough to make the conduct illegal.

I'll leave that incomplete summary and encourage anyone interested in this or the vagueness issue to read the amicus brief--I think it is fairly accessible for non-lawyers and makes their concerns pretty clear. I'm not sure I agree with them n the First Amendment issue, though. I think I'd prefer a First Amendment jurisprudence that considered some of the alleged activity as true threats, whether or not it would qualify under the current view. But that's a hard policy to make.

Folks interested in the First Amendment issues surrounding threatening speech should check out the 9th Circuit's decision on the infamous "Nuremberg Files" here. It is not an easy issue, and the judges clearly struggle to find a way to balance our commitment to freedom of speech with the commitment to protect people from harm.

That said, the defendant's conduct might run afoul of other laws--though the outcome of the First Amendment issue may limit which ones--even if he could not be convicted under this one.
posted by Marty Marx at 6:32 PM on August 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Twitter isn't just "making public statements about a public figure." You can target statements AT someone (using @ and private messages), and many of the statements made where directly threatening.
posted by muddgirl at 8:25 PM on August 1, 2011


Twitter isn't just "making public statements about a public figure." You can target statements AT someone (using @ and private messages), and many of the statements made where directly threatening.

Actually, not really. While "@" replies mention a person by name, they are still public. And you can't direct message someone who doesn't follow you.

The person in this case may well have made threats, but there are plenty of laws already on the books that prohibit threatening speech. It's one of those things that plays well ("Stop bullying!!!) but creating new laws like this has zero good consequences, and hundreds of potentially horrific bad ones. In the same way that "driving while talking on a cell phone" is already comprehensively covered under "reckless driving," these laws have no rational reason to exist.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:54 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Another good parallel is the Patriot Act and all the new surveillance stuff passed after 9/11. The procedures we had on the books were more than enough to detect the 9/11 plot (thus the FBI warning ignored by Bush), but no one wants to be seen as "doing nothing" or admit that we had all the laws we needed and simply failed to use them competently.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:57 PM on August 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


You can target statements AT someone (using @ and private messages), and many of the statements made where directly threatening.

Adding the @ symbol would not make it any less a public statement about a public figure than prefacing a letter to the editor with, "Mayor Bloomberg, I'm talking to you" would. Private messages are another matter entirely, but an irrelevant one, since all of the tweets here were public.

I agree that they were directly threatening, but that doesn't necessarily mean they fall into the category of "true threats" that are not protected by the First Amendment. Just what exactly counts as a true threat is not clear, but it is clear it is a small category and that statutes restricting speech on those grounds must clearly identify what activities they are supposed to prohibit. Unfortunately, that's just what the statute here doesn't do, and is the reason for the challenge. The statute here only requires that the speech cause "substantial distress." It does not, so far as I see, require that that distress be reasonable, or that the distress rise to the level of fear of bodily harm or death. Is it limited to those cases, or does it cover substantial distress over lost business opportunities, or reputational damage? The statute doesn't say, and some of those applications would be unconstitutional--as would be convicting someone for violating an overbroad and vaguely worded criminal law.

Nevertheless, I agree that these ought to be considered true threats, whether or not the statute is constitutional and whether or not the current First Amendment jurisprudence would agree with me.

This kind of harassment is not, I think, an activity that can be contextually isolated as robbery might. I think it relies on the existence of other stalkings that turn violent for its force. It would not be the only activity of that sort. Consider the act of burning a cross on someone's lawn, which does count as a true threat. It doesn't mean anything on its own, and without the context of a long history as a method of intimidation through threats of organized violence, it would be more puzzling than harrowing to see it on one's lawn. The context makes it a true threat, and I think the same can be said for these tweets, even if their context is not as clear an icon of violence as a cross burning.

The tweets are unsettling on their own, but they are frightening because they look just like a common sequence of intimidation followed by violence directed at women. And I'm sure the the defendant knows that, and tailored his actions to fit that pattern. He is, it seems, intentionally trying to make his victim fear that this is another instance of that pattern, in the same way the cross burners are trying to make their victims fear they face another instance of an established pattern.

He isn't just causing emotional distress, he is doing so by invoking a peculiar and established history of men stalking women in this way before committing severe violence against them. The victim isn't just worried that he will kill her; she is worried she will be yet another woman killed in this way--a fear he seems to be intentionally cultivating. That should, I think, be enough to qualify it as a true threat in the way that cross burning is, whether or not he could be convicted under this statute.
posted by Marty Marx at 10:28 PM on August 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


I don't take issue with the fact that tweets are piblic, but I think it's mistaken to state that using @ doesn't make a message more targeted.

And you can't direct message someone who doesn't follow you.

There is a tab on the Twitter interface called "@ Mentions." In that interface, I see all @mentions made about me, even if I am not following that person. IME, this is the favored method of harrassing people on facebook.

In my mind, it is akin to both sending someone a threatening letter in the mail while simultaneously publishing it in the local paper. Isn't sending threatening letters through the mail a federal offense?
posted by muddgirl at 6:49 AM on August 2, 2011


Replace Facebook with Twitter, of course.
posted by muddgirl at 6:50 AM on August 2, 2011


I don't take issue with the fact that tweets are piblic, but I think it's mistaken to state that using @ doesn't make a message more targeted.

I agree, but I don't think anyone is making this mistake.

In my mind, it is akin to both sending someone a threatening letter in the mail while simultaneously publishing it in the local paper. Isn't sending threatening letters through the mail a federal offense?

It can be, but it would be completely independent of publishing it in the local paper, so I don't see why it would even matter. Here, we only have publishing in the local paper. None of the tweets were private. Absolutely, they were targeted, but that doesn't have any bearing on the public/private issue, unless you think the Mayor Bloomberg letter to the editor was really private. It does, on the other hand, bear on the intimidation issue--there's more reason for her to fear injury or death because he is specifically targeting her. (I think this is what you're driving at anyway).

I think the resistance to treating public tweets like mail is coming from concern that it would mean treating a public forum like a private one, and that shift in context changes the meaning of a lot of the speech in the public forum. A lot of the shit that gets tweeted with @ symbols is upsetting already, but it would be even more disturbing to receive in a private letter. But it isn't received in a private letter, so why should we read it in that context, or treat as that sort of communication? As I said, even public tweets about public officials should be treated more seriously than they are, but because of the context they do occupy, not because of how much more frightening they would be if they occupied some other context.
posted by Marty Marx at 10:18 AM on August 2, 2011


If there wasn't a specific and intentional manner in which Twitter serves up unsubscribed @mentions, I would probably agree with you, Marty Marx. But to me, the @Mentions tab is undeniably an Inbox.

If you want to make a public announcement ABOUT a public figure on Twitter, there's no reason to use the @ tag - a hashtag would serve the same purpose, or just mention their name. People use the @ tag because they want their message to be read specifically by their target.

In other words, I think there's a fundamental difference between tweeting "Muddgirl, you are an asshole" and "@muddgirl, you are an asshole." One I can easily avoid by not subscribing to that person's broadcasts (ie, it is opt-in). The other is delivered right to a box on my home page.

Honestly, I don't see how the public/private issue has any bearing on the First Amendment question. Is private (and by that I mean something like a mailed letter) speech NOT protected by the First Amendment?
posted by muddgirl at 10:52 AM on August 2, 2011


But to me, the @Mentions tab is undeniably an Inbox.

But your email inbox, unlike tweets, are not accessible to the public. "Delivered to you" is not the same as "private." Mayor Bloomberg gets the newspaper with the letter to the editor like anybody else who subscribes. The directedness does make it more threatening, though!

Honestly, I don't see how the public/private issue has any bearing on the First Amendment question. Is private (and by that I mean something like a mailed letter) speech NOT protected by the First Amendment?

Some speech that occurs in private is protected and some speech that occurs in public is protected. Whether the speech occurs in a public or a private forum matters when determining whether the speech is protected. Speech in public fora serves expressive and political purposes, the protection of which have been at the heart of the justifications for having the First Amendment.

Denouncing a public figure in public is a way of expressing to everyone else your view that the figure should be denounced, and that they should share your view. Understandably, this is the sort of activity we want to protect, and so we need to ask whether the speech is that sort of activity. I think that here, it is not, and that it is so clearly of a part of an established method of intimidation and violence that we don't even need to worry that prohibiting it will chill the kinds of speech we want to protect.

A private letter to the public figure cannot serve that purpose, so we don't need to ask if it is that sort of speech. There are fewer things we think the letter writer could be trying to do in this case, and less of a chance of making a rule that will apply too broadly or discourage speech we want to protect. Closely related to this, the meaning of the speech changes depending on the context. "@LadyGaga: "I love you!" has a different meaning than a letter reading only, "Lady Gaga, I love you" delivered to her house.

All that said, I'm concerned that I'm coming off as harsh by focusing on this so much, or dismissive for writing such long comments. I don't mean to be, but I am sorry if I have. I really just find these issues interesting (and difficult) and so worry them without thinking enough about doing it diplomatically.
posted by Marty Marx at 5:27 PM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't feel dismissed at all.

What if I sent the same letter about Lady Gaga to Lady Gaga and every one of her neighbors (ie, a newsletter). At what point does private speech become public? It seems to me that you (or the EFF) is arguing that it's OK to legislate whether or not you can send letters which cause "substantial emotional distress" through the mail (because that is private speech), but that you couldn't legislate the same content if it was sent as a newsletter to a group that included the target.
posted by muddgirl at 5:43 PM on August 2, 2011


I'd expect & hope that "substantial emotional distress" should be irrelevant no matter what, think Westboro Baptist Church. It's only the threat that counts, afaik. All these public vs. private issue are simply context that usually helps the court determine whether a threat occurred, but this anti-stalking law uses an unconstitutional criteria instead.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:29 PM on August 2, 2011


I agree. I think the EFF sort of derails itself by making this an issue about public speech, rather than arguing that it's sort of unconstitutional no matter what the venue.
posted by muddgirl at 6:39 PM on August 2, 2011


And heck, maybe they did that - I admit that I only read the summary pages of the brief.
posted by muddgirl at 6:40 PM on August 2, 2011


I'd imagine the case law is clearer for public speech, which creates strategic advantages.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:10 PM on August 2, 2011


The allegations seem to go beyond simple tweets though. He is alleged to have setup a number of sock puppet accounts, fake blogs and online personas to harass the victim. Apparently his last relationship ended with a sexual assault on his now ex-wife followed by setting fire to her massage parlor in Vegas. Also making this weirder he apparently wrote a couple of books one on Knife Fighting and another on Political Kidnapping.

Of course it may also be that he is the victim of a tactic used by religious cults to declarer war on their opponents and leverage media and supportive government officials to aid in the cause.

The KPC thing sets off my woOooo-dar, but most negative a stuff about them seems to trace back to this guys sockpuppets. Even the book about them above seems to leave you with the sense that AZ is well intentioned but in over her head.
posted by humanfont at 10:15 PM on August 2, 2011


« Older Representing the shame of a great city   |   Canadian Juneteenth, aka "you... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post