Like a surprisingly large proportion of Americans, I have a cyberstalker, whom I shall call S. “You know I hate you more than Aphrodite hates Helen,” S announced in his most recent e-mail. “If anyone hates you, it’s me.” A gifted, disturbed and drug-abusing former student, S slipped into paranoia almost three years ago, one fall night in 2011—I remember the shock of receiving about twenty obscene messages in a single hour. He has bombarded me with abusive, lewd and often threatening messages ever since—punctuated by periods in residential rehab, and by all-too-brief periods of lucidity thereafter. S is a gay Latino man, and the special nature of his paranoia is extreme hatred for the dominant white heterosexual academic world, which, he believes, has caused his drug addiction so that he won’t succeed. He has also created a kind of paranoia porn about the fantasized sexual organs of putative lovers or ex-lovers of mine, enraged that they have allegedly preferred a white woman to him (while glorifying those body parts, he includes denigration of female body parts, especially mine, in his rants). I have not replied to his messages since shortly after the break, when I advised him to seek psychiatric help, but I do read them to know how he is doing. He is not doing well. S used to be gifted, sweet and funny. (You can almost glimpse the old S, with his joke about Aphrodite.) Now he is not sweet and rarely funny.
Because the threats might be real, and because in any case S would very likely attend any public lecture I would give in his home city, C (he comments on my whereabouts in his e-mails and seems well informed), and probably cause a disturbance, I do not give public lectures in that city. (I don’t mind this. It is pleasing to have a clear excuse to say no to some invitations.) I have given all of his e-mails and his photo to officials at the University of Chicago, where I am a professor, but I have not involved the police, feeling that the Chicago police would not be interested in a perpetrator far away in C, and that the police in C would not be interested in protecting me here in Chicago. Besides, I feel safe, as S has no money and thus cannot travel. But also, I think S is suicidal, and I do not want to precipitate a tragedy. His e-mails do not alarm me (after the initial shock); they do make me very sad.
In discussing my S situation, I’ve discovered that many people have comparable cyberstalker problems. (My case is unusual only in that, unlike many women with cyberstalkers, I don’t write for blogs or use any social media, so S’s activities are confined to e-mailing me and, at times, cc’ing others.) Such problems are rarely reported to law enforcement, even when the threats are much more severe and disabling than mine, because victims are ignorant of the law or believe, often correctly, that the law is not likely to help them. If the incidents are reported, the police themselves often don’t know the law, and tend to tell victims to go away and tough it out.
In Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, Danielle Keats Citron aims to change that situation, giving readers a sense of the scope and seriousness of the problem of cyberstalking and harassment; an account of existing law, both state and federal; and a set of thoughtful and persuasive proposals for improving both law and law enforcement. The book was preceded by Citron’s valuable contribution to a volume edited by me and Saul Levmore, The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation (2010), and by a series of law-review articles; but Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law, does not rest on her laurels. Hate Crimes in Cyberspace is far broader in scope and more nuanced and wiser in its recommendations than the arrestingly bold article in the anthology, which survives as the basis for a chapter on cyberharassment as civil-rights violation. Vividly written and carefully argued, the book is a fine account of law in this area, even though legal discussions do not take us to the root of the problem.