Anti-Stalking Law Threatens Protected Speech Online

Monday, August 01, 2011

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EFF filed a friend-of-the-court brief today urging a federal court to block the government's use of the federal anti-stalking law to prosecute a man for posting criticism of a public figure to Twitter.

At issue is a federal law originally enacted to criminalize traveling across state lines for the purpose of stalking. In 2005, the law was modified to make the "intentional infliction of emotional distress" by the use of "any interactive computer service" a crime.

In this case, 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.

"Wielding the threat of criminal sanctions to punish the pointed, online criticism of public figures is not only bad policy, it is unconstitutional," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman.

"While true threats can and should be opposed, public speech about prominent people must be vigorously protected."

In the brief, EFF argues that an indictment of a Twitter user pursuant to the federal anti-stalking statute violates the First Amendment, not only because the speech is protected, but also because the language of the statute is unconstitutionally vague.

"The idea that the government should police every inflammatory word spoken online chills freedom of speech and goes against decades of First Amendment case law," said EFF Staff Attorney Hanni Fakhoury.

"The court must recognize social network users' right to speak freely online, even if that speech is unpopular or offensive to some."

For the full amicus brief in US v. Cassidy: https://www.eff.org/files/filenode/us_v_cassidy/eff_amicus_cassidy.pdf

For more on this case: https://www.eff.org/cases/us-v-cassidy

Source:  https://www.eff.org/press/archives/2011/07/29

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