Is It Stalking To Bombard Someone On Twitter With Offensive Messages?

from the free-speech-wants-to-know dept

Yet another case where technology and the law collide. A man in California is facing criminal stalking charges for tweeting a bunch of nasty and offensive (often violent) tweets at a Buddhist leader in Maryland with whom he'd had a falling out. Apparently he sent thousands of such messages, sometimes talking about ways the woman would die. But the case is raising significant First Amendment questions. There are anti-stalking laws designed to deal with someone sending threatening messages directly to someone via phone or postal mail, but what happens when it's on a public forum like Twitter. Suddenly, the First Amendment questions loom large. A person can stand on a soapbox and say offensive things about another person -- that's their First Amendment right. So the issue is where on the spectrum tweets directed at someone fall. Of course, the other issue here is what happens when you have vague "anti-stalker" laws, which seem to have contributed to the concerns here. The rather reasonable fear is that a ruling here opens up anyone who says anything "offensive" about someone else to possible criminal charges, which clearly would be a big free speech issue. So how do you distinguish between someone making credible threats, and someone just venting in an obnoxious manner? Can you distinguish between the two?


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 1:46pm

    No. If they don't like it they can always cancel their Twitter.

     

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    HothMonster, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 1:54pm

    Weird, this guy didn't make it as a Buddhist?

     

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  3.  
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    HothMonster, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 1:55pm

    Re:

    you can always move to Antarctica if someone is stalking you, though I don't think that makes stalking a non-issue

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 1:57pm

    Well, stalker laws are pretty wide in scope. Posting 8000+ messages, inviting the person to die, and the like is pretty scary if you are on the receiving end of it, especially if the guy ever suggested he might go past just words.

    Further, if he changed accounts and continues to attack, that would be much closer to pure stalking.

    Beyond the questions you point out Mike (actually pointed out by the article, repeated by you) would include if the speech is in itself, regardless of location, illegal. Death threats, as an example, might be actionable even if uttered from the proverbial soap box.

    I also think you are attempting to use a bizarre absolute to make a point. This guy sent 8000+ messages, not one. One message probably would have been deleted and ignored. This isn't a case of "The rather reasonable fear is that a ruling here opens up anyone who says anything "offensive" about someone else to possible criminal charges, which clearly would be a big free speech issue". This is clearly an extreme case, and any ruling would not be able to be scaled down to a single bad tweet. It's the scale of his actions that are as much key to this as anything else.

    I sort of take the "big free speech issue" as FUD.

     

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  5.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 2:00pm

    Re: Re:

    So not using one particular internet service is equivalent to packing up and moving to a remote continent? And I did not say that stalking was not an issue, but blasting somone with messages is not stalking. Just delete or change your account.

     

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  6.  
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    Jimmy the Geek (profile), Aug 29th, 2011 @ 2:03pm

    You can never threeaten violence.

    I have the absolute right to swing my arms around. I can swing my arms back and forth, or round and round all day long. It is even a constitutional right. That right ends, however, if swing my arms into your nose.

    The same way, that person could have tweeted on his own feed a million times about the weather, or what he ate, or how he feels about the double rainbow.

    But his right to free speech ends as soon as he threatened to harm another human being.

    And that is a fact.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 2:04pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Cancelling your twitter, stopping getting your hotmail, perhaps cancelling your ISP, hiring a guard for your door, stopping travelling, staying home all the time, not working, living in fear...

    it's all steps in the same process.

    Is the guy sending the bad messages going to show up on your doorstep tomorrow? Your work? Your parent's house? At your kids daycare?

    Will he really confine himself to being a keyboard warrior, or will he go further? You don't know, so you live in fear.

    Your freedom is limited because you fear the wacko. On a site that argues about free speech and the like on very marginal cases, this one should seem like a no brainer. Freedoms are obviously limited.

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 2:04pm

    he sent thousands of such messages, sometimes talking about ways the woman would die [...] A person can stand on a soapbox and say offensive things about another person -- that's their First Amendment right.


    http://definitions.uslegal.com/d/death-threat/

    I think you'll find that standing on a soapbox and making death threats against someone will still land you in jail. First Amendment doesn't give you the carte-blanche right to threaten someone.

     

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  9.  
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    MondoGordo, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 2:09pm

    Free speech

    The issue is about free speech ... he is declaring his position in a public open forum ... not in a private secretive way. The original definition of "stalk" associatied with the crime was "To pursue by tracking stealthily." This guys actions on the other hand is the equivalent of running naked down main street screaming "I'm gonna git you sucka!!"

    Free speech ? YES!!
    Grounds for a restraining order in New York ... probably. Criminal stalking ?? Not really.

    my $0.02.

     

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  10.  
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    HothMonster, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 2:15pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    It can be if that is a big part of your job or social life.

    So assuming changing your account won't interfere with your work or personal life and its no big deal, whats to stop him from finding your new name? How many times should you be forced to change your name before he becomes the problem?

    Or if you stop using twitter whats to stop him from following you to facebook or other social media?

    I'm not necessarily saying this guy should be charged as a stalker just that a person shouldn't be forced to hide(digitally) because of harassment. There should be some kind of relief, in this case a block feature on twitter seems the easiest solution.

    Harassment is not the victims fault and we shouldn't give bullies what they want.

     

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  11.  
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    David Liu (profile), Aug 29th, 2011 @ 2:17pm

    Re:

    Actually, the guy used several different accounts. The buddhist tried to block them all at first, but it got to a point where enough was enough.

    Mike's commentary is a little irrelevant here; from what it looks like, the guy wasn't just merely doing a little "obnoxious venting", but rather doing death threats and flat out harassment. It's not a First amendment issue nor some weird "anti-stalker" law issue. The dude is obviously stalking the monk, and it's not something that should be defended.

    The article itself does raise an extreme important question though: what is the appropriate response to this sort of puerile behavior? How is one supposed to cope with these type of people? Do you just block them as they come in, even though they can easily make a new account to harass you with? Or can you make a federal case out of it?

     

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  12.  
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    :Lobo Santo (profile), Aug 29th, 2011 @ 2:23pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Voices in your head

    An initial 'fight or flight' reaction is instinctual.

    To be afraid for a period longer than a moment is a choice.

    If somebody chooses to live in fear that is their right.

    Also, killing somebody in self defense is also generally allowed...

    The dude yelling "I'm gonna get ya" is an ass to be ignored at best, and a trespasser to be shot at worst. Either way, no fear.

     

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    PlagueSD (profile), Aug 29th, 2011 @ 2:35pm

    Someone needs to show this woman where the block user button is. That's the reason there were laws made for calling/sending mail. There's no way to block them without outside assistance from the phone company/postal service.

    With ANY public forum, there's always a report and/or ignore feature. Learn to use them.

     

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  14.  
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    MondoGordo, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 2:35pm

    Cann you make a federal case out of it ?

    Sure you can. the question is should you?
    The question here isn't "Is this guy being a creepy jerk?" the answer is obviously "yes". The question is "Is posting on a public forum, (like Twitter) synonymous with standing on a street corner and thus constitutionally protected speech ? (Seems pretty clear to me that it is!)
    Or is it private communication covered by anti-stalking laws and thus devoid of 1st amendment protection? Which is what the law enforcement community in Maryland would have you believe! ...
    And ultimately do we want the consequences of this method of communication to lose its 1st amendment protections ?
    (I say no ... )

    To the victim of this abuse I say ... get a restraining order on the grounds of the threatening content ... and have him locked up if he violates the terms of the order.

    Trying to stop him from publicly airing his opinion however offensive or disturbing is UnAmerican.

     

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  15.  
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    MondoGordo, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 2:38pm

    That right ends, however, if swing my arms into your nose.

    true ... but it's only a crime if you INTEND to hit me. Without intent there is no crime ... though there is civil liability.

     

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  16.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 2:42pm

    Re:

    There's no way to block those that just register new accounts to threaten you with.

     

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  17.  
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    PrometheeFeu (profile), Aug 29th, 2011 @ 2:43pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    I know... All of these people calling me a freetard and the RIAA saying they'll come after me is kind of scary. Maybe we should just throw all these people in jail just to be safe.

     

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  18.  
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    Marcus Carab (profile), Aug 29th, 2011 @ 2:43pm

    Re:

    This is clearly an extreme case, and any ruling would not be able to be scaled down to a single bad tweet.

    Is there any reason to be so confident about that, though? The whole idea of case law is that rulings are applied to other situations that are similar but never completely identical. And it does seem like this process can result in rulings having their scope drastically widened or narrowed over time - sometimes to the point that the original intention of the ruling is corrupted. I'm not sure that would necessarily be the case here, but law is one of those areas where "slippery slopes" are a very real danger - so that concern seems worthy of consideration at least

     

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  19.  
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    MondoGordo, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 2:51pm

    Also, killing somebody in self defense is also generally allowed...

    Buddhist ... remember ? Non violent ...etc...

    On the other hand as a re-incarnated Buddhist Lama ... wtf is she afraid of?

    It can't be dying ... re-incarnated remember? (presumably she either will be again or she'll reach Nirvana... unless she has a guilty conscience ... Karma IS a bitch!)

    Anybody ?

     

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  20.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 2:58pm

    Re: That right ends, however, if swing my arms into your nose.

    Depending on the jurisdiction, simply threatening someone is enough for an assault charge; this is known as menacing. Even with battery, which is the physical act involved, recklessness can be seen as equivalent to intent.

     

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  21.  
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    Michael, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 3:12pm

    Re: Cann you make a federal case out of it ?

    Restraining orders are seldom enforced. Usually the violation of the restraining order is part of a slew of charges after the accused actually attacks or kills the victim.

     

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  22.  
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    MondoGordo, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 3:14pm

    simply threatening someone is enough for an assault charge

    That's true in Canada and some other social welfare states.
    But I don't know of any jusidictions in the U.S. where reckless of speech = intent to commit a crime.

    If there are any, please tell me, so I can avoid them like the fascist plague they are ... thank you !

     

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  23.  
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    MondoGordo, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 3:17pm

    The whole idea of case law is that rulings are applied to other situations that are similar but never completely identical.

    Well said and on point.

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 4:46pm

    Re: simply threatening someone is enough for an assault charge

    I love how you used "social welfare states" and "fascist" to refer to the same type of states. Brilliant.

     

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  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 6:12pm

    Could Be Terrorism

    The intention of the man sending all the threatening messages was to induce terror in the victim. He is a terrorist. The victim had no idea when or if he would escalate into actual violence. The victim knew that any attempts to block the offensive messages would be circumvented. The length of time the offensive behavior went on for is also significant. The man was intentionally increasing the duration of the impact on the victim's life. He was not just making his displeasure known. His intention was to punish the victim as severely as he could, without himself being subject to punishment. He has definitely got lots of criminal intent. However, debt collectors would be in a lot of trouble if sending repeated unwanted messages was made illegal.

     

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  26.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 6:26pm

    Re: Could Be Terrorism

    In that case what we can call the RIAA terrorrist since they want to terrorrize a lot of people innocent or otherwise.

    Glenn Beck also comes to mind and a lot of church pastors.

     

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  27.  
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    Chris Rhodes (profile), Aug 29th, 2011 @ 8:22pm

    Re: You can never threeaten violence.

    That right ends, however, if swing my arms into your nose.

    He swung his arm into her nose? Or are you saying she has a right not to receive offensive speech?

    But his right to free speech ends as soon as he threatened to harm another human being.
    And that is a fact.


    You realize that you saying "it's a fact" doesn't actually make it a fact, right? Most (all?) jurisdictions require there the threat to be credible for it to be a crime. And that's a fact.

     

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  28.  
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    David Liu (profile), Aug 29th, 2011 @ 8:36pm

    Re: Cann you make a federal case out of it ?

    It doesn't matter in this case though. His speech wouldn't qualify for 1st amendment protections as you simply can't make death threats anywhere.

    It would be perfectly fine if he made only opinions, but when you spell out in gruesome detail how a person "might" die if he didn't watch his back one night, that's definitely not ok, and the right to public speech does not protect you.

     

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  29.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 8:51pm

    Re: Re:

    I actually somewhat agree with you, here. If it was just one or two accounts it could go under harassment, but at this level it does become something much more.

    I would think the first step would have been contacting Twitter, directly, to try and block the guy completely from using the service. Hey, then we could have gotten him on federal hacking charges, too.

     

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  30.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 8:54pm

    Re: Re: Cann you make a federal case out of it ?

    Telling someone how they would die may not constitute a death threat but an opinion.

    I can tell the RIAA lawyers they probably will get shot someday and those other lawyers trying to extort money from thousands of people would probably end up dead too.

    Am I threatening them, not at all, what I am doing is expressing my opinion and firm belief that at some point they will cross paths with some very angry people that they sued and could and probably will not care what the law says.

    So the problem is, what constitutes a threat?
    For many scared people just the mention of death is enough to elicit a fight or flight response.

     

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  31.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 9:23pm

    Re: Re:

    Quite simply Marcus, it is because of scale. Courts aren't blind to circusmtances of other judgements, the logic and situation of a given judgement are often cited in other cases, debated, and their validity as being on point discussed.

    You could imaging a case of a single tweet, with the judge going "Citing the case of People V. Cassidy, the prosecution tries to show that harrassement can occur via an online service. While this is essentially true, Cassidy was based not on a single action but on a large body of actions that, when taken as a whole, rose to the point of harrassement. There was no indication in the case of any single online post that was by itself enough to reach the legal bar for harassment".

    At that point, it's a non-issue.

    Scale is everything, not something you easily understand, I know, but important in a legal sense.

     

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  32.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 9:31pm

    Criminal charges I feel are overboard.

    The guy obviously have anger issues and the anecdote facts I gather in my on life tells me most of people who do that are mostly blowing out steam.

    What to do?

    Order the guy to a psychological evaluation to access the threat level and if appropriate mandate anger management courses.

    And depending on what happened the woman may be also need those same things depending on how she triggered the guys rage and how she dealt with it after.

    I feel it became to easy to just punish and don't try to understand anything, in some societies when a fight breaks out both parties are punished equally, why? Because people always have a choice, people can always walk away from a fight verbal or physical if they so choose so, but if they want to stand their ground they too are responsible for that fight, for me it makes sense for others it may not, still nobody seems to care about "what happened" and how could we fix this without going directly to the stick approach that doesn't work for angry people it can even trigger more aggression and everyone who watched others raise their kids knows that the most likely to become dysfunctional are the ones exposed to violence the same happens inside society if we use laws as a form of violence to punish and control others eventually that society will become unstable, recently proof of that is the Arab spring and the London riots where discontent emerged violently despite their rulers being oblivious to the growing anger that was building up.

    Punishment doesn't work that great, it doesn't solve the problem it makes people hide it and that is bad at some point it will emerge and it will be ugly.

    Sometimes I wonder what happened to:

    - Access.
    - Understand.
    - Plan.
    - Act.

     

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  33.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 29th, 2011 @ 11:26pm

    Re:

    Aupa! Sounds like a greek wedding to me.

     

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  34.  
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    Marcus Carab (profile), Aug 30th, 2011 @ 5:03am

    Re: Re: Re:

    You seem to be completely ignoring the point I made, which is that over time precedents can grow or shrink to apply on "scales" they never originally seemed suited to. Do you deny that ever happens in law?

    Your imaginary judge quote is very nice, and I indeed hope that's what the judge would say - but you have yet to give anyone a reason to believe that IS what they would say.

     

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  35.  
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    MondoGordo, Aug 30th, 2011 @ 8:06am

    Most (all?) jurisdictions require there the threat to be credible for it to be a crime.

    I guess we have to ask the question ... "Does a guy on the other side of the country using Twitter to repeatedly suggest that horrible things might happen to you constitute a credible death threat?"

    ... not to me ...

     

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  36.  
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    MondoGordo, Aug 30th, 2011 @ 8:13am

    people can always walk away from a fight

    Really ? ... You've obviously never run into someone who just wanted to beat the crap out of you, for fun, have you?

    In that situation your choices become stand there and take a beating (which could be crippling or even fatal) or fight back ... so no choice really.

     

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  37.  
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    Alien Bard, Aug 30th, 2011 @ 9:31am

    I have to admit that harassment does not directly equal stalking (although it may involve it). Therefore this clearly remains a simple case of harassment.

    The usual resolution for harassment is a restraining order. Unfortunately there are three major problems with using a restraining order in this case. First is the matter that restraining orders are rarely enforced until after the attack. Second is the question of how to phrase an internet restraining order (he isn't allowed within 200 websites of her??). Third is the question of proving that the newest anonymous harassment is coming from the same person (without said proof the restraining order is completely useless).

    Personally, I don't blame her for using whatever resources are available to her. But I also see the larger issue here concerning the potential damage to the greater good.

     

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  38.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2011 @ 10:42am

    Re: Could Be Terrorism

    However, debt collectors would be in a lot of trouble if sending repeated unwanted messages was made illegal.

    Well, in that case I say that this guy be punished to the fullest extent of the law, and then some. I think the "unintended consequence" you mention would be acceptable.

     

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  39.  
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    MondoGordo, Aug 30th, 2011 @ 12:34pm

    Re: Could Be Terrorism

    According to Wikipedia ... "There is no universally agreed, legally binding, criminal law definition of terrorism. Common definitions of terrorism refer only to those violent acts which are intended to create fear (terror), are perpetrated for a religious, political or ideological goal, and deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants (civilians)."

    ... so yeah ... it could be ... it seems to be religiously motivated ... i'd buy that argument sooner than I'd buy the stalker argument ...

     

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