In a 2-1 ruling Monday, the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles said the violent language of the message – threatening to “rip out your … heart and feed it to you” and to “pound your head in with an ice pick” – conveyed a harmful intent that is not protected by the right of free speech. The dissenting justice, Frances Rothschild, said no one who read all the messages posted on the Web site – in which youths tried to outdo the others in outrageous insults – would interpret any of them as a serious threat. The case is one of the first in California to examine the boundaries between free expression and so-called cyber-bullying.
The court majority said a message that threatens physical harm, even if it wasn’t meant to be serious, loses its First Amendment protection and can be grounds for a lawsuit. The plaintiff, identified only as D.C., set up a Web site in 2005 to promote an entertainment career after recording an album and starring in a film. Believing – wrongly, the court said – that he was gay, some fellow students at a Los Angeles high school posted comments that mocked him, feigned sexual interest or threatened violence.