Twitter Debate: Is the Service a Soap Box or a Direct Line of Communication?

Illustration for article titled Twitter Debate: Is the Service a Soap Box or a Direct Line of Communication?

An insecure loser who was rejected by a Buddhist society and then used Twitter to stalk and harass its leader with more than 8,000 tweets has inadvertently started one of the more interesting social media debates in recent memory.

Mainly, was what William Lawrence Cassidy did when he sent those thousands of hateful, violent messages to Alyce Zeoli, a Buddhist leader based in Maryland the direct harassment of an individual, or was it a broadcast of protected free speech to an audience of Twitter users? Cassidy's messages began the moment Zeoli's organization discovered he was faking lung cancer and his "reincarnation" status in the Buddhist community. They promptly kicked him out of the group.

How the courts answer that question could be critical, as it represents an unexplored area of "Twitter speech."

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As the New York Times notes, defamation suits involving Twitter or Facebook are not new, but in regards to this case prosecutors considered it cyberstalking (i.e., the distinction here is the tweets were directed at Zeoli, and were not about her in a public forum).

The outspoken EFF, no stranger to online debate, has already weighed in with support for Cassidy's right to free speech:

"While not all speech is protected by the First Amendment, the idea that the courts must police every inflammatory word spoken online not only chills freedom of speech but is unsupported by decades of First Amendment jurisprudence."

Regardless of the outcome, we do know for certain that Cassidy has no idea what a haiku is. One of his 8,000 hateful, threatening tweets reads, "Ya like haiku? Here's one for ya. Long limb, sharp saw, hard drop."

Indeed. [New York Times via Boing Boing]

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DISCUSSION

It's definitely more of a soap box than a direct line of communication. A direct line of communication is e-mail, it's a a Facebook message, an instant message, a text. Twitter isn't that. Twitter is a public post. It can be a public post listed as being as directed at a specific person, sure, but that doesn't make it a direct line of communication. Twitter is akin to being in a crowded train station or airport with a megaphone shouting things. Sure, you can start your shouts by saying "John", but it's not the same as going up to John and talking to him one-on-one.

However Twitter isn't even an actual soap box, due to the character restriction and the "social" aspect. A blog is a soap box. You can get up on your box, say what you want, and get down. That's a blog. Twitter is a soap box, where you're restricted to one medium length sentence, where everyone else is also on a soap box, also delivering their one medium length sentence, all at the same time. So going back to my analogy, Twitter is more accurately a crowded train station where everyone is shouting in a megaphone.