In 2007, when the media started covering the phenomenon of cyber harassment, the public’s reaction was disheartening. Although the abuse often involved threats, defamation, and privacy invasions, commentators dismissed it as “no big deal.” Harassment was viewed as part of the bargain of online engagement. Proposals for legal intervention were met with fierce opposition because law could jeopardize the Internet’s role as a forum for public discourse. Curiously absent from discussions about the Internet’s speech-facilitating role was individuals’ difficulty expressing themselves in the face of online assaults.
No longer is this case. As recent statements by civil liberties groups make clear, it is now uncontroversial to suggest that cyber harassment interferes with expression, even as it is perpetrated via expression. This brief essay, offered as part of the Boston University Law Review Annex’s online symposium on my book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, explores what happened to change public attitudes towards cyber harassment and the significance of private efforts to combat cyber harassment for our system of free expression