Mr. Cassidy’s lawyers with the federal public defender’s office argue that even offensive, emotionally distressing speech is protected by the First Amendment when it is conveyed on a public platform like Twitter. Legal scholars say the case is significant because it grapples with what can be said about a person, particularly a public person like a religious leader, versus what can be said to a person.
The question as to what types of speech are protected by the First Amendment is one that our nation has grappled with since the passage of the Bill of Rights a few short years after the Constitution’s ratification. With recent tests to the Amendment’s limits being waged by groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church [NY Times Article], it becomes even more relevant that as a society we seek to determine just what is meant by “free speech.”
While most it seems would agree that free speech includes that speech which many find distasteful, whether or not free speech includes that speech with could be deemed “threatening,” has yet to be fully fleshed out. What is clear however, is that at this time there is a marked difference between what someone can say about you and what someone can say to you. In other words, while a person may not be able to threaten you directly, it seems that the First Amendment may allow a person to say threatening things about you on social outlets such as Twitter.
Is there a difference between threatening someone directly and simply eluding to it in Twitter posts? Should we as a society tolerate that speech which may cross the line between hateful rhetoric said in the public sphere to that directed at an individual? If we draw these limits on speech, however, are we not heading down a very slippery slope?