UPDATE: After writing this, I received a phone call from the Carroll County, Md., Sheriff's Department. I will be turning myself in this afternoon. Read the story to see why I'm going to jail for standing up for the right to "Tweet."
(Elkridge, Md.) I thought that fighting Parkinson's disease would be the ultimate battle of the rest of my life. I was wrong. Now I'm fighting for my First Amendment right to mention a person's name in my Twitter messages. That is correct. After 14 years fighting Parkinson's disease, now unable to walk without assistance, I've been informed that an arrest warrant has been sworn ordering that I be hauled off to Carroll County, Maryland, jail for violating a peace order.
Did I throw rocks at someone's house? No. Did I make a series of harassing phone calls to someone? No. Did I leave a burning bag of dog poo on someone's doorstep, ring the doorbell and run away giggling? No, but the thought has its charm.
No, I sit here on this Wednesday morning, waiting for the knock at the door because I tweeted someone's name after he told me to stop doing it.
The someone is William John Joseph Hoge III of Westminster, Maryland. Hoge has been trying to get me arrested since February when, on a Blog Talk Radio Show, I said the words "Beware the Ides of March." That remark was actually directed to another person altogether, but Mr. Hoge was mentioned in a list of names leading up to the fateful remark, so he assumed that I was threatening to kill him on March 15. Never mind that the famous quote was not a threat itself, but a warning from "The Soothsayer" to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's play. Mr. Hoge said it was a death threat directed at him.
One judge after another laughed at that assertion. But give Mr. Hoge an "A" for effort. He filed charge after charge in Carrol County District Court, charging me with harassment, electronic harassment, and a bizarre charge of illegal access to a computer, which I somehow accomplished on the night of Super Storm Sandy's greatest fury, during which I somehow commandeered a Brazilian computer and used it to send threatening messages to Mr. Hoge using someone else's name.
Mr. Hoge had three trips to the plate hoping to get a peace order against me. That's like a Maryland version of a restraining order. He tried twice in the Carroll County District Court. Two swings, two misses. On his third try, this time in front of an elderly Carroll County Circuit Court Judge who admitted he had no idea what "The Twitter" even was, he hit a pop fly to the infield, which my lawyer lost in the sun of his own brilliance. Mr. Hoge was awarded his Peace Order for a six-month period.
Now, I admit. I was unaware of what the law has to say about Twitter being either "contact" or "harassment," and there was at least one time that I believed I had inadvertently violated the peace order by answering a tweet posted by my ex-wife that happened to contain Mr. Hoge's "@wjjhoge" handle therein. I removed it from my timeline within minutes. But one of Mr. Hoge's devotees on his "Hogewash" blog (I'm not kidding about the name) saw it as it hit the timeline, saved it and sent it to Mr. Hoge.
Mr. Hoge responded by filing charges. All in all, between being granted his peace order on June 14 and today, Mr. Hoge has filed dozens of charges against me for violating his peace order, all of which were declined by the State's Attorney office in Carroll County.
Being a curious sort as a former journalist, member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, I dug further into the law as it regards Twitter.
Turns out there was a landmark case decided in a US Federal District Court in December 2011. In the case of US v. Cassidy, the federal judge decided that the ultimate responsibility for avoiding content on Twitter rests on the receiving end. A person can take 10 seconds to block the "tweets" of someone he doesn't want to read. Mr. Hoge, however, said he didn't want to block my tweets. He wanted to read them. He just didn't want me to use @wjjhoge in any of them. Matter of fact, on July 10, not even a month after getting his peace order, Mr. Hoge tried to FOLLOW my Twitter feed. I turned him down.
The more I dug in preparation for a Circuit Court hearing I requested to modify the peace order, the more I learned. I learned the Maryland Attorney General was asked his opinion by the State Legislature as to the language of new, tougher anti-harassment laws. The AG's office replied:
<blockquote>"The purpose of this alteration is to clarify that the section does not apply only to electronic mail, as that term is ordinarily understood, but also to other forms of electronic communication between persons, including Facebook messages and instant messaging. The definition retains the requirement that the communication be sent "to a person" and "received by the person." As a result, it would not include communications on web pages, blogs, Twitter, bulletin boards, or the Facebook or MySpace pages of the poster or of a person other than the person the poster intends to harass." (Emphasis added)</blockquote>
Well, I guess this means in order for a Twitter comment to be considered "Contact" and thus, "Harassment," it must be a direct message. But that's not possible since two people have to actually "follow" each other on Twitter to engage in Direct Messaging.
So, what is accomplished by adding a @wjjhoge to a Twitter tweet. Is that the same thing as sending a message TO someone?