Hot-tempered police offers, pushover judges, and vague laws make for a dangerous combination. In July, a controversy erupted in Renton, Washington (a Seattle suburb) when the town’s police department launched a legal assault on an anonymous YouTube user for merely uploading a few sarcastic videos poking fun at the department’s scandals.
In an op-ed in The Seattle Times, Nicole Ciandella and I explain what happened in Renton and discuss the saga’s implications for constitutional rights in the digital age:
According to Washington state law, a person is guilty of criminal “cyberstalking” if he makes an electronic communication using lewd or indecent language with the intent to embarrass another person. In other words, a Washingtonian who creates a raunchy email message, blog post or Web video to embarrass a foe isn’t just playing dirty; he’s technically breaking the law. One YouTube user recently learned this lesson the hard way.
Last month, the scandal-ridden Renton Police Department launched a criminal cyberstalking investigation against a YouTube user known only as “MrFuddlesticks.” The user had uploaded a series of lewd, animated videos poking fun at recent allegations of wrongdoing by Renton police officers. In one video, a character talks about his civilian superior’s lack of law-enforcement experience; in another, characters discuss the impropriety of a police officer who slept with a murder suspect.
Even though none of MrFuddlesticks’ videos mention the city of Renton or any police officers by name, Renton police managed to convince a county judge to issue a warrant to compel Google, YouTube’s parent company, to disclose identifying information about MrFuddlesticks’ accounts, including credit-card details and even contents of Gmail messages.
You can read the rest of the essay here. (For more on the controversy, see Jacob Sullum at Reason’s Hit & Run; also see Mike Masnick at Techdirt. For an exploration of the case’s constitutional implications, see Eugene Volokh at The Volokh Conspiracy.)
Here on the TLF, we’ve repeatedly cautioned lawmakers about the dangers of criminalizing cyberstalking (1, 2, 3, 4). Back in 2006, CNET’s Declan McCullagh explained why all Internet users should be worried about vague, overbroad cyberstalking laws. As the troubling actions of Renton’s finest illustrate, the potential for such laws to be abused is very real. Let’s hope lawmakers in Washington and in the numerous other states with cyberstalking laws on the books take a hard look at their laws.