Can radio hosts be held accountable for the behavior of their listeners?
It started as a slowly percolating and largely private dispute over the ownership of the @TomGreen Twitter handle between two people named Tom Green--one a Toronto college professor who grabbed that account ID, and the other a celebrity comedian who was too late to get it. It exploded into a sewer-full of insulting, obscene, and even threatening tweets sent to the teacher.
And now the professor wants the radio hosts who may have inspired their listeners to send the offending tweets to take responsibility for what happened to him--and to be punished by Twitter.
For more than a year, the two Tom Greens have gone back and forth over whether the college professor would relinquish the handle. Though the comedian has garnered 110,000 Twitter followers with the workaround ID @TomGreenLive, he clearly feels that number would be far higher if he had the authentic @TomGreen. But because the professor's name is actually Tom Green, there's no question of Twitter taking away the account.
"I sometimes wonder if my following would grow slightly quicker," he told the hosts of the Opie & Anthony show during a taping on January 25, "if I just had the @TomGreen because people can't find me, right?"
Green's appearance on the show was meant to promote his world tour, and especially a stop in New York City, and in fairness to the comedian, it was the show's hosts who raised the question of the Twitter handle during the taping (link to very NSFW audio recording).
"I don't want to get into it too much because he gets real mad," the comedian said on the show of the dispute. "I don't want to be in a Twitter war."
But the hosts seemed to relish picking a fight. "You need us to take care of this thing?" one asked Green. "We'll take care of this thing."
With that, one of the hosts sent out the tweet that may have opened the floodgates. Dictating as he typed, the host--it's hard to say which one--tweeted, "@TomGreen Why don't you let the real Tom Green have this thing. Stop being so selfish."
What followed was ugly.
Over the next few minutes, the hosts, mostly laughing loudly, read a series of listeners' tweets that were now being directed at the professor. The language is mostly too coarse for publication, but one read, "Hey, asshat, give @TomGreenLive his name back or we will bra bomb your house."
Amidst the laughter that accompanied the reading of the tweets, one host told the comedian, "We're taking care of this. You're going to have that name by the end of the day."
'Pedophile' and 'pederast'
As the Opie & Anthony hosts were amusing themselves with their antics, and that of their listeners, Tom Green, the Toronto interactive multimedia professor, was suddenly discovering what was coming his way--hundreds of angry tweets, including at least one broadcasting his office phone number.
"When you incite your followers to start calling me 'pederast' and 'pedophile' and start threatening to report me to my college administration for having sexual relations with my students," the Humber College professor told CNET, there's a problem.
In a tweet today, the Opie & Anthony show responded to CNET's request for comment by saying only "#IDidntDoS--t."
"What's bothering me," Green said, "is that Opie and Anthony got off scott free. They have yet to acknowledge [what seems to be] a very public case of cyberbullying."
For his part, the comedian Tom Green seems very eager to distance himself from the situation. "It ends up making me look like a jerk," Green told CNET, "even though I didn't do anything."
The comedian explained that from his perspective, after the Opie & Anthony hosts raised the question of the Twitter ID, "One sort of sicced their listeners on [the professor] as a joke."
In the aftermath of the incident, the comedian posted on his Web site an open letter to the professor--and to the community at large.
"People have been bothering the other Tom Green on his Twitter account," the comedian wrote. "Calling him names and demanding he give me his name. I do not want his Twitter handle. I am happy being @TomGreenLive. But this does not matter. Because out of the millions and millions of people online, some of them have decided to make this their cause. A cause that I am not endorsing."
Asked if he believed that the radio hosts are responsible for the flood of obscene tweets directed at the professor, Green told CNET, "I'm good friends with the Opie & Anthony show. The fact of the matter is, there's a lot of people in the world now who enjoy negative shock tactics....I think there's a freedom thing on the Internet. You can't tell listeners or viewers not to be creative if they go into places that are horrifying and wrong....I don't think they were encouraging [listeners] to be as negative as it was."
He added, "I think they were just reading the tweets."
That assessment clearly doesn't reconcile with what Tom Green the professor feels happened to him.
The professor has been demanding that Twitter take action--against the users who sent him the insults and threats, and even against the Opie & Anthony show itself.
To date, Twitter has suspended a number of accounts involved in the situation, but Green is upset that the microblogging service's rules require him to proactively send in each instance of abuse rather than the company taking unilateral action against every user that tweeted something offending at him.
In an email to CNET about the incident, a Twitter spokesperson said, "While we don't comment on individual accounts for privacy reasons, we do have a help page outlining our policies around abusive users and guidelines on how to deal with possible encounters."
It appears unlikely that Twitter will take any steps to punish the show or its hosts since there is no evidence that they urged their listeners to abuse Green. But given what ensued as the hosts laughingly said they were "[taking] care of this thing," the teacher feels that the hosts are responsible for what he called cyberbullying.
"If they had an enforcement policy with teeth," Green said, "if they made a determination there, they would comb through the Twitter feeds and kill them instead of putting the burden of proof on" the victim.
Can the hosts of a show be held accountable for what has to be considered a case of cyberbullying? Listening to the recording of the radio show, there can be little doubt that the hosts inspired their listeners to start sending nasty tweets to the professor--even though they never asked for that to happen. But can they be considered culpable before the law?
According to Justin Patchin, the co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, the answer is probably not.
Patchin said that based on a quick explanation of what happened, he was inclined to agree that the professor had been cyberbullied, and that the radio hosts "have responsibility" for it. But he also said there was likely no legal liability for what happened.
But to Tom Green the professor, it's important that someone be held accountable. If not to make him feel better, then at least to set a precedent for the future. "Thank God it was me that got nailed," he said, "because if it was some 15-year-old, it would have ended with a rope or something."
Update (Monday, 2:18 p.m. PT): This story now includes comment from the Opie & Anthony show.