Main | Wednesday, March 17, 2010

CA Court Rules That Threatening Anti-Gay Web Comments Are Not Free Speech

A California court has ruled that a 15 year-old boy whose personal website was flooded with anti-gay threats can sue the classmates who made them.
In a 2-1 ruling Monday, the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles said the violent language of the message - threatening to "rip out your ... heart and feed it to you" and to "pound your head in with an ice pick" - conveyed a harmful intent that is not protected by the right of free speech. The dissenting justice, Frances Rothschild, said no one who read all the messages posted on the Web site - in which youths tried to outdo the others in outrageous insults - would interpret any of them as a serious threat. The case is one of the first in California to examine the boundaries between free expression and so-called cyber-bullying.

The court majority said a message that threatens physical harm, even if it wasn't meant to be serious, loses its First Amendment protection and can be grounds for a lawsuit. The plaintiff, identified only as D.C., set up a Web site in 2005 to promote an entertainment career after recording an album and starring in a film. Believing - wrongly, the court said - that he was gay, some fellow students at a Los Angeles high school posted comments that mocked him, feigned sexual interest or threatened violence.
One of the defendants (who made death threats on the site) claimed that the student's lawsuit broached his freedom of speech. He has written a letter of apology to the student and his parents. Six students are being sued on charges of hate crimes, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The case is expected to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

RELATED: In New York, it is a felony to use the internet in a manner intended to "harass, annoy, threaten or alarm another person." The law was created in response to cyber-stalking, but there have been few successful prosecutions.

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