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Op-Ed: No First Amendment for Tweets and no justice for online opinions?

By Paul Wallis     Jul 22, 2012 in Internet
Sydney - A young lady passed out at a party, was sexually molested, and her attackers posted a video of the attack online. She didn’t like the “slap on the wrist” for her attackers, and said so on Twitter. She might go to jail for that.
This is a truly nasty little story. This is AP’s version of it, as relayed by Sydney Morning Herald Australia:
Seventeen-year-old Savanna Dietrich tweeted the names of the boys in response to the frustration she felt over her attackers' plea bargain.
If they really feel it's necessary to throw me in jail for talking about what happened to me ... as opposed to throwing these boys in jail for what they did to me, then I don't understand justice.
Now, Dietrich could face an $US500 ($481) fine and up to 180 days in jail for the act if she is found guilty of being in contempt of the court.
It’s a good indication of how far out of date law can be. Her attackers committed a crime against her, and as juveniles, were let off lightly after a guilty plea. She doesn’t have a right to comment on an event which traumatized her, no First Amendment rights, and no protection in this case as well? This is not acceptable.
A few issues for the law:
1. Her opinion of anything, let alone her own personal issues, is a First Amendment right. Set in stone, no ifs, no buts, no maybes.
2. How many other people have commented on the verdicts related to their own complaints?
3. Were these people prosecuted? If not, why not? Families of homicide victims regularly complain about verdicts, and aren’t prosecuted for it.
4. Did they have the right to comment in mass media? Yes they did.
5. Isn’t it inconsistent to charge one person but not thousands of others?
6. The supposed “broadcast” of an opinion, in any medium, isn’t illegal, either.
7. “Contempt of court” is way down the list of priorities compared to infringement of Constitutional rights.
8. State courts can’t rule on Constitutional rights. Not their jurisdiction.
Civil Law issues
If a court is prepared to state that no citizen has the right to discuss their own personal issues online, express their opinions and in effect has no legal rights, that’s just plain wrong:
(a) She has the right of appeal against the sentence, to start with. It’s not clear whether her actual legal rights have been made clear to her, either.
(b) The basis of any appeal would be much the same as her expressed opinions- Too lenient.
(c) An appeal on these grounds is not illegal, so how could the victim expressing those opinions privately or to friends be illegal?
(d) She could sue the attackers in a civil suit. (Although juveniles may have outs in that scenario.) That’s another right, and the basis of the suit would be similar to her opinions, seeking damages.
(e) Is the court seriously implying she doesn’t have these rights?
No subpoenas for Twitter and no online justice?
The internet issues are equally irritating and legally vague. Apparently a New York court ruled that Twitter accounts don’t have to be subpoenaed. Why not? In theory, Twitter accounts are like any other social media account. Same medium, and the nearest analogy is a phone account, which does require a subpoena. The jurisdiction issues aren’t as clear here, either way.
The irony of this position by the court is inescapable. Her attackers were able to use an online medium to embarrass and humiliate her, but she can’t use an online medium to defend herself and demand her rights? Where’s the justice in that?
Social media is a communications medium for individuals, not just a different form of broadcasting. What’s expressed as an opinion, in any medium, is an opinion. The law can’t regulate or penalize opinions, with good reason.
Courts aren’t above the law, either
It’s becoming increasingly clear that US courts need to be accountable at law for their actions. That accountability has to be visible, and has to be backed up by case law. That’s particularly the case where Constitutional rights are deemed to be secondary to the “dignity” of the court or similar dubious modes of conduct.
Courts are not above the law. Any civil rights lawyers should be paying close attention to this case, because it looks like the young lady is having her rights as much abused as she was.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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