In essence, the government indicted William Cassidy for sending a lot of tweets on Twitter. This was charged as a violation of a federal anti-stalking law. His defense lawyers argued that this was protected by the First Amendment.
Yesterday, Judge Roger Titus of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, issued an opinion dismissing the indictment.
Most interestingly, Judge Titus explains both blogs and Twitter from the point of view of a colonist at the time of the drafting of the Bill of Rights. He explains that,
Because this case involves First Amendment issues, terms that were in use by citizens when the Bill of Rights was drafted may help in understanding the legal context of Blogs and Twitter. Suppose that a Colonist erects a bulletin board in the front yard of his home to post announcements that might be of interest to others and other Colonists do the same. A Blog is like a bulletin board, except that it is erected in cyberspace rather than in one’s front yard. If one Colonist wants to see what is on another’s bulletin board, he would need to walk over to his neighbor’s yard and look at what is posted, or hire someone else to do so. Now, one can inspect a neighbor’s Blog by simply turning on a computer.
Moving on to explain Twitter, Judge Titus says that,
Twitter allows the bulletin board system to function so that what is posted on Colonist No. 1’s bulletin board is automatically posted on Colonist No. 2’s bulletin board for Colonist No. 2 to see. The automatic postings from one Colonist to another can be turned on or off by the owners of the bulletin boards, but there is no mandatory aspect of postings on one Colonist’s bulletin board showing up on the other’s. It is entirely up to the two Colonists whether their bulletin boards will be interconnected in such a manner.
Finishing his description of the facts (and foreshadowing the legal analysis that will follow) Judge Titus writes that,
Blogs are of unlimited size in terms of content, but must be accessed one at a time. Twitter is limited to 140 characters, but allows unlimited voluntary connectivity with other users. That connectivity, however, is subject to change at the whim of a user who has the ability to “turn off” (“block” or “unfollow”) communications from another user.
Whether couched in terms of the Internet or Colonial bulletin boards, there is one consistent aspect of both eras. One does not have to walk over and look at another person’s bulletin board; nor does one Blog or Twitter user have to see what is posted on another person’s Blog or Twitter account. This is in sharp contrast to a telephone call, letter or e-mail specifically addressed to and directed at another person, and that difference, as will be seen, is fundamental to the First Amendment analysis in this case.
Judge Titus has provided a useful framework for thinking about blogging and twitter in the context of the First Amendment. He only lacks an explanation of why anyone would spend time on Twitter in the first place – though perhaps Judge Titus can be forgiven for not taking that challenge (and my own lackluster use of Twitter may suggest that I think that question is unanswerable).
This is a strong win for the Federal Public Defender’s office in Maryland – congratulations to those very talented lawyers.