Kevin Alfaro / Aurich Lawson / Getty Images
A New Jersey man is charged with a tweet attempting to identify a police officer. Four other people are charged with retweeting the tweet, the Washington Post reports.
Kevin Alfaro participated in a protest against Black Lives Matter in the New York suburb of Nutley, New Jersey in June. He took a picture of a masked police officer and tweeted, "If anyone knows who this slut is, put their information under this tweet."
In a GoFundMe campaign to cover his legal fees, Alfaro said he was "physically threatened" by counter-demonstrators during the Black Lives Matter demonstration. He tried to identify an officer who appeared to be friends with one of the counter-protesters whom Alvarao considered a "blatant racist".
Initially, Alfaro's tweet received little attention. It was only retweeted a couple of times and eventually deleted. But it caught the attention of the Nutley Police Department. In mid-July, Alfaro and others were charged with cyber harassment. This is a fourth degree crime that carries sentences of up to 18 months in prison.
"I just retweeted because I felt we should hold our officers accountable, like anyone else," wrote Georgana Sziszak, one of the defendants, in a GoFundMe campaign to cover her legal fees. "I've never heard of retweeting a tweet being a crime, let alone a crime."
The complaint against Sziszak alleges that the tweet caused the officer "to fear that he, his family and property will be harmed".
"As a 20-year-old who just retweeted a tweet to help my friend, I now run the risk of giving up my career, serving time and having a record," wrote Sziszak.
Strong defenses present
Sziszak's retweet is "clearly protected by the first amendment," said Alan Peyrouton, Sziszak's lawyer, in an interview with Ars. "I've never had a case like this."
Peyrouton points out that the Third Circuit – the federal judiciary that includes New Jersey – has a jurisdiction protecting the right to photograph officials. He also points out that there are legitimate, non-harassing reasons to look for identifying information on a police officer. For example, Alfaro may have been interested in making a formal complaint about the officer's behavior.
And Eric Goldman, an internet legal scholar at Santa Clara University, tells Ars that those who merely retweeted the original tweet are likely to have another legal defense: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Section 230 is most commonly invoked by online service providers such as Twitter to protect them from liability for user content. However, section 230 states that "no provider or user" of an online service can be held responsible for someone else's content. If Sziszak merely retweeted Alfaro's post, she should enjoy the same immunity that Twitter has.