Troll who harassed woman through 8,000 hate-tweets claims free speech defense

William Lawrence Cassidy is accused of posting some 8,000 tweets to harass Alyce Zeoli, who is described in this NYT article as "a Buddhist leader based in Maryland."

Using an ever-changing series of pseudonyms, the authorities say, Mr. Cassidy published thousands of Twitter posts about Ms. Zeoli. Some were weird horror-movie descriptions of what would befall her; others were more along these lines: “Do the world a favor and go kill yourself. P.S. Have a nice day.”

Here is one of them, as redacted in the criminal complaint: “A thousand voices call out to (Victim 1) and she cannot shut off the silent scream.” Another: “Ya like haiku? Here’s one for ya. Long limb, sharp saw, hard drop.”

Cassidy has been jailed on charges of online stalking and is now the subject of a federal case that suggests the question...

Is posting a public message on Twitter akin to speaking from an old-fashioned soapbox, or can it also be regarded as a means of direct personal communication, like a letter or phone call?

Read Somini Sengupta's piece in the NYT here: Man Accused of Stalking via Twitter Claims Free Speech


  1. “Using an ever-changing series of pseudonyms”

    I wonder how a social networking site might try to address such a problem…

    1. Unfortunately, it’s idiots like this guy that just give social networks and governments at various levels ammo for real-identity online verification (imagine having to enter your SSN, birthdate, and current address in a site just to register). Police state? Yeah, maybe a bit, but it’s derpasses like this that’ll pave the way.

  2. Because harrassment and stalking are what the First Amendment was primarily designed to protect. Yes, that seems like a perfectly sound defense. I guess he doesn’t have any other one other than an insanity plea.

  3. The plaintiff has little to worry about.  Cassidy’s crimes against haiku alone should merit him plenty of prison time.

  4. Ranting on a soapbox is one thing. People can just walk away.  Chasing them down the street for months is not free speech.  

    P.S. Has anyone alive even seen a soapbox? 

    1. I have, in my grandmother and grandfather’s old old house in Maine. I did not, however, stand on it or orate anywhere near it (I was eight years old, cut me some slack).

    2. P.S. Has anyone alive even seen a soapbox?

      I have seen people talking at Speakers Corner in London but  can’t be absolutely sure the boxes they stood on once contained soap.

      1. Speakers at Speakers Corner in London seem to prefer either little folding step ladders or beer crates, from what I’ve seen.

    3. I was trying to think why the image of someone ranting from a soapbox seemed so familiar to me.   I know the expression of course, yet, it felt like I have actually seen somebody ranting while standing atop a box.

      I realized it’s because in 2005 I played the MMORPG game “City of Heroes” for about six months.    There is, or was, a gang of NPC bad guys.   Probably “The Fifth Column”, and as you walked around the city, frequently one of them would be standing atop a box on the sidewalk (whether a soapbox or not), and ranting some sort of dogma, to his followers.  

      As you could then, as a Superhero, attack him and his followers with fireballs or whatever your superpower was, I guess it was sort of a blow against Free Speech in that virtual world.

    4. I have! When I visited London back in 2002 there was a place in one of the parks where people literally stood on a soapbox to speak their minds.

    5. I saw one once, a weird not quiet Christian church was using it to reel people in by making them feel shitty about themselves… 

      Never thought that was a good way to make friends either… 

  5. I expected to read he was a spurned ex-husband or something…
    “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.”


    1. So it looks like… fraudster joins organization, lies about a major medical condition as well as supposed reincarnated status, mooches off organization, gets found out and presumably given the boot, and then decides that he’s the one that’s been wronged and goes on a gigantic trolling campaign. At least according to the other side.

      What a charming young man.

      1. One has to wonder what  a karna- appropriate reincarnation for this upstanding young man would be.  Suggestions from the peanut gallery?

        1. One has to wonder what  a karna- appropriate reincarnation for this upstanding young man would be.  Suggestions from the peanut gallery?

          A bowl of petunias.

    2. Oh, an angry employee…don’t they end up shooting their co-workers? Thanks for posting this, it shines a whole new light on the subject. I wish it was posted as:

      Ex fellow employee harasses former boss via twitter. 

      Now that’s interesting. 

      I personally knew two people who scam churches to get benefits. They belong to five different churches, get emergency money for rent, utilities, housing, food and child care. 

      This guy defrauded the church, he should have been arrested.

  6. I am in law school. ONLY to bring a fool like this to justice who messed with the wrong person. Free speech does not INCLUDE harassment, annoyance & interference. He’s an idiot.

  7. Is posting a public message on Twitter akin to speaking from an old-fashioned soapbox, or can it also be regarded as a means of direct personal communication, like a letter or phone call?

    Um… does it matter? If I’m threatening your life, it’s illegal whether the communication was public or private, I think.

    Internet lawyers, amirite?

    1. Yes, but it’s not clear from the attached article that he ever threatened her life per se. 

      1. I’ve always been somewhat bothered by this issue: without a fairly specific direct threat, there is nothing to enforce.  However, I would personally consider the combined messages listed in the article to be a threat.  Sadly, he is smart enough to know this legal distinction and tiptoes around it, so the most they can get him for here is harassment and associated charges.
        As for the soapbox question: I think even the soapbox would become direct personal communication when you carry it with you and follow a private person around all day, no?

      2. Yes, but it’s not clear from the attached article that he ever threatened her life per se.

        Fair enough. But I took a full semester of… uh, high school civics law… and I was under the impression that absolute explicitness wasn’t necessary (e.g., “I will come to your house at 8:45 tonight and murder you with a flensing knife”) as long as the whole situation would cause reasonable people to fear for their safety. 

        I’m guessing in 8,000 tweets he probably crossed that line more than once. For that matter, wouldn’t receiving 8,000 angry psychotic tweets make any reasonable person nervous?

      3. No, but he wouldn’t have stopped until she was dead, no matter how it came about. That’s what he was freely speaking about, wanting her dead. If it was Obama, he wouldn’t have lasted after the first tweet. 

    2. You bring up a great point. Isn’t “free speech” a crock the way it’s defined now? How about changing it to “Freedom to Speak”. Free Speech is ambiguous at best, I thought laws were meant to clarify anything ambiguous. 

  8. How exactly do you check ones “reincarnation credentials”? Thats one hell of a background check.

    “Yeah, it checks out, he was born in Maryland, and then right before that he was an aging female in North-East India.. this guys legit!”

  9. I’d say the question of whether Twitter’s like a soapbox or direct personal communication is irrelevant. The First Amendment protects your right to speak. It *does not* magically free you from liability for that speech. This speech would have merited the criminal complaint regardless of the method or venue.

    1. The first amendment does not “protect your right to speak”, some people are served with gag orders. The first amendment protects “freedom of speech”. Now define “speech”. “Speech” does not equal “speaking”. 

      Doesn’t it really mean people have abused this and believe the first amendment really is the “Freedom to Voice Your Opinion? That’s all that millions of people have that belongs to them and this new thing called the internet demands your opinion, collective opinions are worth billions of dollars.

      1. Perfect example, political financial donors claim their donations are “free speech”…..nice. 

  10. Ya never know — sometimes that defense works.  (Judging from my experience growing up in a place where it did work quite a bit.)  If he’d used the “it was a figure of speech” defense, then you’d know you were dealing with an even lower class of scumbag.  (And yes, even that defense works sometimes.)

  11. No doubt Cory would take his side, since he thinks Police have no business using social media to deal with those who incite disorder.

  12. He has the right to free speech.  He does not have the right to freedom from the consequences of what he says.

  13. As someone who’s posted less than ten tweets to my twitter account (which I only signed up for to tweet a joke to a friend of mine) since activating it a few months ago, I have a noob question.

    My understanding is that you can tweet at another user’s account or simply tweet. I figured the tweets at someone show up on their twitter page, but tweets not directed to anyone only show up on the page of the one tweeting them. Given that he used an “ever-changing series of pseudonyms”, it stands to reason that she would not have known about them if he hadn’t tweeted them at her account, since she could hardly know of every pseudonymous account tweeting about her. That’s a direct communication like an email, not an indirect soapbox like a blog. She didn’t seek out his vitriol; he sent it to her. Surely that qualifies as stalking.

    Or have I completely misunderstood the intricacies of Twitter?

  14. It seems pretty cut & dried to me. If you post with no individual audience member in mind, then it’s broadcasting. If you’re speaking to a specific person in the same format, then it becomes an open letter to that person.

  15. I guess what really matters is specifically what he said.   If there were threats against her he probably has no defense.   But if he simply said “I think she is evil,” even saying it 8000 times, he probably has a good case. 

  16. Maybe this foreshadows a re-framing of the debate. Instead debating pseudonymity, we should ask, how do we define the spectrum of unacceptable to criminal behavior in terms of modern communications technology?

  17. The behavior which Mr. Cassady is accused of is reprehensible- let us not forget this,

    That said, the behavior which “Jetsunma” has been accused of again and again is also reprehensible.

    See for example:–%20NAZI%20METHODS%20OF%20INDUCING%20BODHICITTA

  18. It’s a bit of both. After all, you can stalk someone and harass them from a soapbox, if you stand on it outside their window and yell at their house. And you can have a private conversation in public. I’m going to go with this dude being a stalker and breaking the law based on the direct nature of his communication: he spoke to her account on twitter directly, where he knew others would see it – but also where he knew it was addressed directly to her. It’s a bit like the old bulletin board system, where you had all those public statements but could reply directly to a single individual. 

  19. 8K tweets = bad, Even if they were positive and only about what a lovely person she was, that would be harassment. 8,000 tweets that suggest dismembering her and that she will scream is way past harassment.

    Yes, I have seen an actual physical soapbox being used as a metaphorical soapbox. There is a guy who stands on the other side of the street from the unemployment line in downtown Houston, TX and yells at all the people in line every morning. This is in 2011.

  20. 8000 tweets directed at her personally with the intent that she read them. in an online forum that she is known by this guy to frequent. “Maybe you should go kill yourself” is asking her to read it. The haiku is little more than a slightly veiled threat. 

    If he stood on a soapbox in Hyde Park, and waited for her to pass by because he knew she frequented there, and then went ahead  with this sort of speech, he would be considered to be engaged in a criminal act. You take it all off line and it is still a line he crossed.

  21. — Sorry if i double post, I don’t understand this login thing —
    It’s not really the law’s responsibility to prevent people from being assholes to each other. I have always wondered if there is any good scientific basis for even having laws against threatening people. I mean, we (I’m not from the US, but this is true in most places) don’t have a law that says “you have to help old ladies across the street” or “you can’t be sarcastic when talking to shopkeepers”.

    People will increasingly have to deal with this crap if they want to have a public presence on the internet. Maybe we will have to move to models like facebook or google+, where you can’t just spawn 100 spam accounts that easily. The thing in the blog post  is absolutely disgusting and the woman who received the messages was pretty much defenseless in terms of stopping it. Still, I can’t help thinking that this is different from him actually slapping here (or what ever), and that the government should not be in the business of protecting our egos.

    Sometimes (like this), the social norms fail — maybe more frequently on the internet — but the internet also could harbour a new frontier of asshole-repelling netchnologies. It would also be sound to have a thorough, scientific, evaluation of the law that restricts free speech. The current restrictions seem pretty arbitrary (including copyright terms of course)

  22. It wasn’t 100% hate.. The pattern: deep Zen quotes and musings the first few hundred tweets into a new identity, then it would inevitably divert to this topic, then dominate it.  Rinse, repeat.

  23. Free speech doesn’t protect harassment, death threats, verbal extortion attempts, yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre, or a whole host of other utterances.

  24. I’m a big supporter of the EFF and donate to them annually, but I certainly don’t agree with their motion to dismiss this case and protect the troll’s right to free speech in this situation. I might have to reassess my contributions if that’s the way they think.

  25. The Supreme Court has thus far judged speech up to the point of actual threat of violence to be protected speech, including non-specific calls for political violence. EFF, like the ACLU and most free speech organizations, supports this posture, as do I, wholeheartedly, not because we think degenerates like this deserve special protections, but because these questions do not exist in a vacuum, and there are larger issues at stake.

    So when I defend the right for the Westboro Baptist Church to protest, for example, I am not saying that I agree with their message, I am saying that when tools are given to the government to restrict unpopular speech, then we all loose, badly, because the inevitable target of such rules will be advocacy for politically-unpopular issues.

    Just look at what the government has done with state secrecy claims – it has made mockery of the very concept of state secrecy by invoking those protections to deprive innocent torture victims of their day in court. If laws are created or interpreted that give the government the power to determine which speech acts cross the line and which do not, those rules will be abused.

    The bottom line is that legislation should not be created or interpreted primarily with reference to specific cases. When you start legislating on the basis, you get crazy child protection or drug control ordinances that are vague and excessive, fueled by moral outrage. The question here is not whether this guy is right or wrong to send 8,000 twitter messages to this unfortunate woman, it is what kind of society do we want to have, and how do we want to control who can say what in the public forum.

    Just this afternoon I listened to Malcolm X’s galvanizing speech “The Ballot, or the Bullet.” That’s exactly the kind of political action that is at risk here.

    1. The question here is not whether this guy is right or wrong to send 8,000 twitter messages to this unfortunate woman, it is what kind of society do we want to have…

      Yes, that’s the point. I don’t want to have a society where people can threaten and harass other people without consequences.

  26. What a complete loser… I think that we can all agree that this person suffers enough from severe psychological problems. Nevertheless threats and free speech are incompatible.

  27. I’m not trolling here, but it seems like quite a few my fellow boing-boingers have blurred the distinction between what is on a computer screen, and reality.  You can switch off the computer or stop using Twitter.  Twitter is free and isn’t even close to a necessity; if you don’t like how it works stop using it.  The volume of very rude comments directed at this person doesn’t change the fact that they are just rude non-threatening comments.  It isn’t even close to the same thing as a physical presence, or being followed, or called on the phone, or having items mailed to you, or having somebody stand in front of you and direct a threat.  This isn’t a law enforcement problem, it is an ISP terms of service problem.  This case shouldn’t be used to erode other people’s civil liberties at taxpayer expense.

    1. So, the question is where does civil liberty end and lawful protection of another’s indivdiual freedom begin? Which raises another question, what do you consider a civil liberty? Should someone’s harassment of another be protected as a “civil liberty”?  

      1. I would say the line between our civil liberties (the liberty to express an opinion, even if vile or unwanted), and our freedom from harassment, lies in the ability to remove one’s self from the harassing situation.  Someone physically following somebody else, or taunting them as they leave their house, or using electronic text as a means to effectively disable someones primary means of communication is denying them their basic freedoms.  But there is a big emphasis on primary means of communication or free movement.  Free public access forums that are privately owned aren’t a primary means of communication like a phone or  even email.  We should be free from having to move to another town, or change a phone number or email to prevent harassment, but if someone chooses to use their primary means of communication to read public comments directed against them elsewhere, the are doing it by choice and not loosing a freedom.

        1. You can’t completely hang-up the internet like a phone call, it has persistance past any one individual’s session. The internet (twitter et al) also engages more then just the two individuals, comments are seen by a large number of other viewers. You are failing to account for this when you suggest that one need not listen to a troll. That is true to a degree, but at a certian threshold it becomes a community issue beyond the simple bluster that is everywhere on the internet

          A troll is there for, or because of, that audience, and any modern calculation of harassment must take this into account as well. So yes, one doesn’t have to listen to harassment, but that doesn’t make it’s deleterious effect just disappear. 

          To analogoize, it doesn’t matter if you are harassed in a “private” parkinglot, individual freedoms protected through law state that everyone should have equal access to that lot. The law makes no distinction as to where the harassment occurs, only that the behavior in question has reached the threshold beyond which the action is legally considered harassment.

          So sure you can “remove” yourself from the harassment, but that doesn’t mean that suddenly the harassment didn’t take place. And by chosing “remove” as your standard you are in effect admiting that harassment is allowed as long as an escape route is present, and no matter if that “removal” then prevents equal or uniform access to those said services, such as twitter (As the harassment now drasticly changes how the indivdual must use said service or location). I’m not sure you realize, but it looks like, you are in-effect endorseing bullying, and ignoring the commual aspects of the web.

          1. So I know it is tough to stomach, but I think being able to deal with trolls and bullies is a responsibility of people living in a society with free speech.  Speech that is slanderous, libelous, threatening, or speech that cost someone money subjects the speaker to civil liability, and in some cases is illegal.  But to my way of thinking, if harassment doesn’t cross the line of causing measurable harm, it is protected speech. 

            If I said that your replies were emotionally harming me, making me feel bullied, or depriving me of  the freedom to use somebody elses website, should you get thrown in jail?  Of course not.  Even if you relentlessly made vile remarks after every post I ever made on BoingBoing, it would be annoying and harassing, but not illegal.  I could just quit reading the comments.  True, they would always be there, but the ease of avoidance and lack of measurable harm makes it clear that I’m not being deprived of any freedom in a reasonable sense of the word. But getting back to my original observation about reality-versus-computer screen:  if you waited for me in the parking lot every night, and I couldn’t get to my car without having to endure the harassment, that puts me in an unavoidable position to have to be harassed, and though I wouldn’t file one, should be at least good candidate for a restraining order.

            (And don’t worry, I don’t feel harmed by your comments – I appreciate your civility.)

          2. Well now we’re traipsing down the lawyer’s road.  And in a sense I do agree with you, however, I feel that the legal bar in our society is already acceptabley high, and that more often then not cases involving slander, harassment and the like get thrown out of court becuase they do not meet that high standard.

            So in a sense I’m not arguing that all bullying and the like need be “outlawed” I am instead arguing that certian cases, like this one, should have their day in court. I just think that we shouldn’t just toss the laws to the wayside in the name of a new technology. 

            Your mention of a “measurable harm” is probably the most compelling reason for litigation. As the plantiff is alleging that such harm has been done. If culture is a commodity on the web then  some interesting arguments might grow out of litigation. Is one’s reputation subject to harm via the web or social media? Or is this something where no harm may be  reliably measured? Can someone’s avatar be a subject of harassment given the persistant nature of the web? Does sentiment analysis provide reliable data? I think I know where your opinions fall, but at the very least, we shouldn’t be worried about a loss of civil liberties, as this is just an individual court case.

    2. So let’s say that someone sends you a postcard every day with violent threats on it. Would it be fair to say that you could put duct tape over your mail slot and ignore the messages? No, because then you’d miss ALL of your mail. In the same way, yes, you can stop using Twitter to ignore a stalker troll, but in doing so, you’re forced to miss everything coming through Twitter. Neither is acceptable.

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