It's amazing how technology and electronics, and the role they play in our lives today, can be misunderstood and misconstrued. And here's a doozy, and an upsetting one at that: a federal judge has dismissed well-known Twitter cyberstalking case, citing that the Tweets were protected under free speech.
This is a shocking ruling when you consider that the "free speech" Tweets, sent by a man named William Lawrence Cassidy to a well-known Buddhist leader Alyce Zeoli, comprise literally thousands of threats and disparaging comments, sent from several different accounts. This was not one single angry event spread across a single evening, but a planned and relentless campaign that went on for far longer than 18 months. (Eighteen months is the amount of time Zeoli barred herself into her home, according to the New York Times, so afraid was she to leave her house and risk that Cassidy would harm her. They knew each other in "real life" and had been colleagues at one point, so the attacks were, indeed, very much personal.
This ruling is all the more surprising given all the attention that cyberbullying has gotten in the past year, as so-called "harmless" online communications led traumatized teenagers to take their own lives. And continuing research into teenagers and e-buse shows that constant monitoring via cell-phone texts creates as much self-esteem damage and anxiety as those comments would in person.
If we understand that the communication teens engage in via electronics is "real" and creates real damage and emotional devastation, then how is it possible that this is not what the judge understood in this case? Everything about Cassidy's actions were extreme, from the content of his Tweets to the frequency of them to the manner in which he doled them out. This is not speech to be safeguarded; this is not a side-effect of her notoriety (the judge cited her profile as a "public person" as one of the reasons the speech was protected). This is hate, pure and simple, being spewed at someone in a public way in the hopes of disturbing her and exacting an emotional price.
Teenagers may be digital natives, having lived their whole lives entwined with their friends in constant communication -- But our judges need to get native, too, and understand that what happens online has very direct and real consequences in real life.
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