The Twitter micro-blogging service is just like the bulletin boards that Colonial Americans might have had in their front yards to communicate with one another at the time the Bill of Rights was adopted, said a federal district court judge in United States v. Cassidy, No. TWT 11-091 (D. Md. Dec. 15, 2011). The court made the bulletin board analogy in the course of analyzing the application of the First Amendment in a criminal prosecution involving thousands of tweets and blog posts, a number of which are alleged to have caused emotional distress to their subject, the leader of a Buddhist religious sect.

(Of course, Colonial Americans probably didn’t have bulletin boards in their front yards, or if they did, it has escaped the notice of history. But they had town criers, newspapers, letters and tavern gossip, with which they managed to launch a Revolution. But I digress.)

The indictment charged violations of the federal interstate stalking statute, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2261A, which criminalizes the use of interstate communications to engage in a course of conduct with the intent to place a person in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury. As amended in 2006, the statute additionally criminalizes the use of interstate communications, including an interactive computer service, with the intent to harass or intimidate or cause “substantial emotional distress.” As the court in United States v. Cassidy noted, the 2006 amendments to the statute significantly broaded its scope.

Cassidy moved to dismiss the indictment, alleging that the statute was unconstitutionally overbroad and vague, and was unconstitutional as applied to him.

The court assumed for purposes of analysis that the tweets and blog posts that Cassidy was alleged to have published anonymously in fact inflicted substantial emotional distress on their target; the court described them as “anonymous, uncomfortable Internet speech addressing religious matters.” (The messages are catalogued in an appendix to the court’s opinion.) Nevertheless, the court concluded that Cassidy’s publications are not within one of the categories of speech that fall outside of First Amendment protection: “obscenity, fraud, defamation, true threats, incitement or speech integral to criminal conduct.” Citing both Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (U.S. 1997) and the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (U.S. 2011), the court commented: “Even though the Internet is the newest medium for anonymous, uncomfortable expression touching on political or religious matters, online speech is equally protected under the First Amendment….” Slip. Op. at 12.

The court rejected the Government’s argument that the Government has a compelling interest in protecting victims from emotional distress sustained through an interactive computer service, and further rejected the argument that the statute regulated conduct rather than speech. It is on this point that the court’s analogy between Colonial bulletin boards and blogs was brought to bear.

While prosecutions for making harassing telephone calls have been upheld, the court acknowledged, phone calls and e-mails are communications that are directed at a particular victim and received outside a public forum. In contrast, the court concluded, “Twitter and and Blogs are today’s equivalent of a bulletin board that one is free to disregard ….”

Having found that the statute was unconstitutional as applied to Cassidy, the court declined to reach his facial overbreadth and vagueness challenges to the statute.

It will be interesting to see if the court’s analysis holds up in other cases, either under the federal statute or under a similar state law. The Amicus Brief submitted by the National Center for Victims of Crime and Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center in support of the Government’s position pointed out that anti-stalking laws have been enacted in all 50 states, and some of those statutes encompass so-called “cyberstalking,” “cyberharassment” or “cyberbullying,” variously defined.