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Cyberbullying or Freedom of Speech? Twitter Trolling Lands Texan in Jail

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The case of a Texas man who is currently imprisoned over trolling a judge on Twitter has sparked a massive debate about the freedom of speech -- particularly online.

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Babak Taherzadeh, 46, has been imprisoned in the Dallas County jail since June on charges of felony stalking. He is accused of harassing Judge Brandon Birmingham, who oversaw a harassment case against him, using at least 10 different accounts on Twitter.

Like many others, Taherzadeh uses Twitter to comment about politics and other current events, though he admits that he has a “different sense of humor.”

Taherzadeh believed that Judge Birmingham had mishandled the case against him, and so he took to Twitter to voice his grievance. He had been indicted over texting his brother-in-law that he was going to kill him over an unpaid debt.

Judge Birmingham claimed that he was "in fear for the life of his family and for his own” over the tweets directed at him from the anonymous accounts that Taherzadeh was running.

Taherzadeh claims he was exercising his rights to free speech and to petition the government. He had also tweeted his frustration with the Dallas Police Association and a Dallas detective.

Authorities claim that Taherzadeh had overstepped his right to free speech by threatening violence and bringing up the judge’s family. On June 8, Taherzadeh tweeted, "Wanna see me bitch slap a State District Judge? I am not one to trifle with." Another tweet read, "pray for the death of @JudgeBirmingham."

"There were a lot of ugly things, but there's nothing against the law that says you can't be ugly. You can be an a------, and that's what I tend to be a lot of the time, OK?" Taherzadeh told the Dallas News. "But that's not against the law."

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Taherzadeh claims that he was just portraying a character online, and would never have said the things he did on Twitter if he was face to face with the judge.

"When I was in his court, I said, 'yes sir' and 'no sir,'" he says. "The way I handled it online, that would not be the way I would handle it with him in person as Babak Taherzadeh."

Legal experts say that hate speech, and criticizing public officials is protected speech. There is even wiggle room for joking and hyperbole about violence. The right to free speech ends when a “true threat” is made.

"It's always been a huge tension there, the concerns about safety versus having an open dialogue and being able to criticize public officials," Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center told the Dallas News.

Still, Taherzadeh is sitting in jail, on what he claims was just “speaking truth to power.”

"You come to America, you think it's all about freedom and stuff and you criticize a judge and you're in jail, I mean, is it only for white people?" Taherzadeh, who moved here from Iran with his parents when he was three, asked the Dallas News.

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