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04/29/09 07:01 AM


Cyberspace lets cowards have free rein

Donn Esmonde

I am happy that the guy got caught. I am happy not just for Rus Thompson, the activist who for nearly two years endured e-mail insults, taunting and threats from a coward hiding behind the cloak of anonymity.

I will be happy if the story of accused e-mailer David Zelonis’ arrest prompts any civility-assaulting blogger or e-mailer to think twice about anonymously spewing personal attacks across cyberspace.

Thompson is leading the fight to remove the tolls from the Grand Island bridges. For nearly two years, a critic has sent him a string of taunting, obscene and threatening e-mails, relayed anonymously from an untraceable e-mail address:


Saw your pic in the paper. Geez, if I had only known you were there—oops, no brakes.

He obviously knew where Thompson lived.

[Cement] mixer in the driveway, pool in back. House needs work, especially by the front door.

Send all available trucks. FIRE ON TRACEY LANE!!!!!!

“I felt like I was being stalked,” Thompson said. “I have thick skin, but when it gets to the point where you threaten my house and my family, then it goes too far.”

The cyberspace assaults ended last month, when traceable e-mails were sent to Thompson. Zelonis was arrested by sheriff’s deputies, hit with a misdemeanor harassment charge and has a May 6 court date. Zelonis is a Grand Island toll-taker who told authorities that he was afraid of losing his job if the Grand Island tolls were removed.

I understand Zelonis’ concern for his job. The problem comes with the personal attacks, threats and harassment, launched from behind the wall of anonymity.

“If you don’t have the guts to say something to somebody’s face, then don’t say it at all,” Thompson said. “There is no question that the anonymity let him take this to a level he never would have if he had to put his name on it.”

Cyberspace is a fabulous tool for information- gathering and interpersonal connections. The dark lining in the silver cloud is its misuse by people, through blog posts and e-mails, to anonymously spread vile rumors, make personal attacks and convey threats. Using the Internet is simpler than sending hate mail, less traceable than a phone call, and— when posted on blogs—available to a potentially huge audience. It amounts to an assault on civility.

“When people are online, they feel like it’s themselves and the computer, and they forget about the consequences of hitting the ‘Send’ button,” said Bill Raffel, an associate professor of communications at Buffalo State College. “It’s sort of like talk radio. Because people can be anonymous, they . . . do not have the same inhibitions.”

The problem goes beyond any individual target. Threats and rumormongering subvert the higher purpose of cyberspace as a forum for opinion-sharing and interconnection.

“The idea is to promote grass-roots democracy, without the filter of the media,” Raffel said. “But any tool can be used for good purposes or for bad. In cases like this, the blessing becomes a curse.”

Actions have consequences. Society already has taken a toll on the toll-taker. Zelonis has endured the embarrassment of media coverage, and he may be disciplined by the Thruway Authority. Next Wednesday, the law gets its turn.

Thompson plans to be in court that day. I have a feeling that Zelonis will not be anywhere near as tough or as nasty when forced to look Thompson in the eye.