Internet cartoons equal cyberstalking?
The Renton, WA police department sought to prosecute an internet user who posted an insulting video about the police department under the screen name Mr. Fiddlesticks. The alleged crime? Cyberstalking.
To assist them in their pursuit of the internet user, the Renton police department recently obtained a search warrant that orders Google to turn over the real name and identity of Mr. Fiddlesticks. Officers in the department expect to treat Mr. Fiddlesticks as someone who had illegally committed ‘cyberstalking’ through the posting of information on the internet with the intention of harassing or embarrassing individuals.
Public uproar and ridicule were key factors in the police department backing down on the criminal investigation.
What does the Renton, WA police department believe the cartoons are cyberstalking?
Using an internet video creation website, Mr. Fiddlesticks created videos which depicted the Renton police department in a fairly negative way. For example, Mr. Fiddlesticks implied that members of Renton’s police department committed sex acts while on duty, and that some of the officers received promotions without meeting the necessary prerequisites. In general, the nine videos Mr. Fiddlesticks created generally depicted the Renton police department as a corrupt and incompetent institution.
Officers within the department claim the videos to caused them emotional distress and that Mr. Fiddlesticks should promptly be identified and prosecuted. The officers argue that the videos all constitute ‘cyberstalking’ by their sheer offensive nature which was posted online, they argue, with the intent of doing reputational or emotional damage to the officers. Some officers suspect that the video must have been posted by someone within the department, such as a police officer or some other personnel, given the specific knowledge the videos display about the Renton police department.
Is there a legal justification for prosecuting Internet cartoons as cyberstalking?
Upon hearing about the situation, law professors and legal experts throughout the United States have voiced their opinions about whether or not the Renton police should be able to prosecute Mr. Fiddlestick for his online remarks. Though inarguably provocative enough to have caused the Renton police some embarrassment and hurt feelings, various legal minds have claimed the First Amendment’s protection of free speech prevents Mr. Fiddlestick from suffering any punishment.
In the minds of some of these legal officials, Mr. Fiddlestick did simply what all other comedians do when they speak or present information in a potentially embarrassing way about other individuals for the sake of humor or some other reason. These legal minds contend that if Mr. Fiddlestick faces prosecution, all comedians who poke fun at other individuals or organizations could have their freedom of expression stifled.
Even though criminal prosecution for cyberstalking now seems off the table, the threat of arresting someone for a cartoon has a chilling effect on free speech. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Fiddlestick will be identified and sued in civil court for Internet defamation instead of treated like a criminal for cyberstalking.