Aug. 29, 2011 at 3:21 PM ET
Alyce Zeoli says she was so inundated with malicious tweets aimed at her — “Ya like haiku? Here’s one for ya. Long limb, sharp saw, hard drop" and "Do the world a favor and go kill yourself. P.S. Have a nice day" — that she did not leave her Maryland house for a year and a half.
She hired guards to protect her from the man allegedly behind the Twitter rantings, William Lawrence Cassidy, who lived more than 3,000 miles away in Southern California.
If it seems like an extreme reaction to someone attacking her in messages limited to 140 characters, consider this: Cassidy posted 8,000 tweets, nearly all of them about Zeoli, a Buddhist leader also known as Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo, and her group, between December 2009 and January 2010, according to the FBI.
The bureau filed a complaint against Cassidy in federal court on charges of online stalking, and for now, he is in jail. His attorneys — federal public defenders — contend that "even offensive, emotionally distressing speech is protected by the First Amendment when it is conveyed on a public platform like Twitter," said The New York Times in an extensive look at the case.
The Brooklyn-born Zeoli, who describes her background at this website, declined to be interviewed by The Times, which said:
According to the F.B.I. and Ms. Zeoli’s lawyer, Mr. Cassidy also claimed to be a reincarnated Buddhist when he joined Ms. Zeoli’s organization, Kunzang Palyul Choling, in 2007. He signed up using a false name and claimed to have had lung cancer, they said. Ms. Zeoli’s organization cared for him and, briefly, even appointed him to its executive team. The relationship soured after they came to doubt his reincarnation credentials and found that his claims of cancer were false. Mr. Cassidy left. Then came the relentless tweets, they said.
A "few" of Cassidy's tweets "could be seen as potentially threatening," wrote Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor, who spoke to the Times and also made additional comments on his own website over the weekend.
But other tweets — while not exactly civil — Volokh wrote, were along the lines of "(Zeoli) is a demonic force who tries to destroy Buddhism," and "(Zeoli) is no dakini; she's a ...burnt out freak... her 'crown' is a joke."
To be sure, he badmouthed Zeoli a lot, but the First Amendment protects frequent speech as well as occasional speech. Someone who makes it his mission to repeatedly criticize a religious leader, whether Jerry Falwell or a leading Scientologist or Ms. Zeoli, remains constitutionally protected ...
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is siding with the defense in the case, and has filed a motion to support its dismissal. The motion says, in part:
As the ways people express their thoughts adapt to new technology, it is important to maintain our Constitutional guarantees at the electronic frontier. While not all speech is protected by the First Amendment, the idea that courts must police every inflammatory word spoken online not only chills freedom of speech, but is unsupported by decades of First Amendment jurisprudence.
In the Cassidy/Zeoli case, the EFF contends, by using a federal law originally meant to criminalize stalking and the emotional distress it can cause, the government "has presented the novel and dangerous theory that the use of a public communication service like Twitter to criticize a well-known individual can result in criminal liability based on the personal sensibilities of the person being criticized."