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Twitter harassment protected by the First Amendment

In what could be a landmark ruling, a Maryland judge ruled that it's up to users to "avert" their eyes from hateful tweets and to block offending users—even if they keep creating new accounts to cause further damage.


Kevin Collier


Posted on Dec 16, 2011   Updated on Jun 2, 2021, 11:44 pm CDT

Rest easy, Twitter trolls: Harassing someone with mentions on the microblogging network is now officially protected as free speech—possibly because the judge responsible doesn’t fully understand Twitter.

In what could prove to be a landmark ruling, Judge Roger W. Titus of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland dismissed on Thursday all harassment accusations against William Lawrence Cassady. He was accused of stalking a Alyce Zeoli (@JALpalyul), a leader in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, with malicious tweets.

The decision was described as a victory for the First Amendment by some. However, Titus’s order overlooked a key detail in how Twitter users communicate with each other.

“Here, A.Z. had the ability to protect her ‘own sensibilities simply by averting’ her eyes from the Defendant’s Blog and not looking at, or blocking his Tweets,” Titus wrote in his ruling. He was referring a decision reached in United States v in Playboy Entertainment Group: “We are expected to protect our own sensibilities simply by averting [our] eyes.”

While that’s true, an affidavit referenced in the order states that Cassady circumvented that issue by creating at least 12 Twitter accounts that in some way harassed Zeoli.

A public figure with over 39,000 followers, Zeoli would find it difficult to keep up with her supporters if she never checked her @mentions—Twitter’s convention for directing conversations at a specific user, a feature played up in its recent redesign. Having to track and block each account that harassed her would be a significant burden. Until Zeoli identified the user to block, she would receive notifications in her timeline. If she used a mobile app or Twitter’s text-message features, they’d buzz her phone every time.

That’s hardly the billboard Titus described; it’s more like someone marching up to your front stoop and ringing the doorbell.

Nine of Cassady’s known accounts are now deleted or suspended. A tenth, @kpcwatch, is protected and didn’t allow the Daily Dot access. Another, @MaliceZeholi, retweets bickering between various Twitter users, mostly related to Buddhism, but if any messages were malicious and/or directed toward Zeoli, they’ve since been deleted.

That leaves @vajragurl as the sole remaining evidence still available on Twitter. That account was extremely active between July 16th, 2010 and Feb. 5, 2011, with over 8,501 tweets. Its tweets are extremely concerned with and critical of Zeoli—and often uncouth.

“Be of use @JALpalyul go give somebody a blow job and then wash the car,” @vajragurl once tweeted at Zeoli.

But the anger is mostly directed towards discrediting Zeoli as a religious leader, repeatedly calling her organization a “cult.” In fact, @varjagurl makes nonviolence explicit: “It is my opinion that Alyce Zeoli is a dumb ass but that should not be extended to imply I wish her any harm,” he wrote last August.

According to the court order,however, tweets quoted from some of the deleted accounts—all of which were traced to Cassady’s IP address—were far more brutal.

“I have just one thing I want to say to @JALpalyul, and its form the heart: do the world a favor and go kill yourself. P.S. Have a nice day,” reads one cited in the court documents

“@jalpalyul you are a liar & a fraud & you corrupt Buddhism by your very presence: go kill yourself.”

It’s important to note that while a few of the tweets considered by the judge could be considered threatening and address Zeoli with an @mention, the majority do neither. For example, “ya like haiku? Here’s one for ya: “Long, Limb, Sharp Saw, Hard Drop” ROFLMAO.”

Interestingly, Cassady’s alleged Twitter tactic of repeatedly changing his identity mirrors how he first harassed Zeoli in person. According to the affidavit, Cassady met Zeoli after claiming his name was William Sanderson and that he held a high position in Zeoli’s sect of Buddhism. He also mentioned violence, offering to kill her ex-husband.

For her part, Zeoli claims she has been so distressed by Cassady’s words that she hired armed guards to protect her residence, at one point refusing to leave her home for 18 months, according to the New York Times.

Now it’s on Zeoli to protect herself on Twitter too.

Photo by Rosaura Ochoa

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*First Published: Dec 16, 2011, 3:41 pm CST