Angry tweets to YouTube weren't cyberstalking, lawyer argues
A Josephine County man is seeking to have his federal cyberstalking charge dismissed because his profanity-laced tweets to YouTube staff members don’t apply as a “person” under the law, and that his posts were “constitutionally protected speech.”
Federal prosecutors say William Gregory Douglas, 36, used Twitter to express intent “kill, injure, harass and intimidate,” specifying seven angry Twitter posts that stem from YouTube moderators’ removal of his channel, according to U.S. District Court in Medford filings and earlier news reports.
In the tweets against the Google-owned video streaming web service — including one calling out YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki — Douglas allegedly referenced an April 2018 shooting at the company’s San Bruno office demanded staff return his channel “before someone else comes and shoots more of your employees.”
Other tweets indicated Douglas would “kill 100 YouTube employees if given the chance,” and “no more warning expect massive casualties,” court filings say.
Douglas’ lawyer, assistant federal public defender Brian Butler, argued to have the case dismissed on civil liberties concerns.
Butler said his client is being prosecuted for speech rather than conduct, that cyberstalking laws don’t apply to businesses and that the law is “unconstitutionally overbroad,” according to a 42-page filing late last month in the case.
Butler will make further arguments at a pretrial conference set for Thursday afternoon.
Butler argues that his client’s tweets don’t count as a “true threat,” meaning that despite hyperbole Douglas didn’t have an actual intent to commit an act of violence.
“Mr. Douglas’ alleged tweets were violent, poorly worded and ill-conceived, but they were not true threats,” Butler wrote. “The tweets were protesting against public figures (YouTube and its CEO) on a matter of public significance (corporate censorship), within a public forum (the Internet).”
He argues that when considered in context, Douglas’ tweets sent between August and September could be read as a “frustrated attempt” to convey an opinion.
Elsewhere, Butler argues that YouTube “is not a person and does not need to be protected from stalking.”
“Even if the allegations against Mr. Douglas are true, the tweets at issue cannot constitute stalking because YouTube is an entity for which personal safety is simply not implicated,” Butler wrote.
One Sept. 17 tweet allegedly calls out YouTube’s CEO, saying, “Susan I’m coming for you today #pray.”
Butler argues the single tweet does not count as cyberstalking because it is not “a pattern of conduct composed of 2 or more acts evidencing a continuity of purpose,” as the law specifies.
Using violent lyrics by rapper Eminem about the musician’s divorce and custody issues — specifically passages from the tracks “Kim” and “97 Bonnie and Clyde” — Butler argues that his client’s case could set a “substantially overbroad” precedent that would “chill artistic expression.”
Butler also sees the law as having the potential to criminalize “quintessential political speech,” such as British comedian and commentator John Oliver, whose HBO show has motivated viewers to harass some subjects of Oliver’s show with death threats, harassing phone calls and spam emails.
“... the First Amendment does not permit the suppression of speech simply because the message is damaging, terrifying or uncomfortable,” Butler writes. “Nor is it enough that speech is offensive or even violent.”
The U.S. Attorney’s office has not yet responded to Butler’s motion to dismiss, records show. Federal prosecutors will respond by Jan. 10, and U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken will take the filings under advisement by Jan. 27.