Virtual Assault

28 Pages Posted: 12 Oct 2020

See all articles by Nicole Ligon

Nicole Ligon

Duke University School of Law

Date Written: July 2020


The vast majority of gifs, memes, and other internet content constitute speech protected by the First Amendment. As a general rule, aesthetic decisions concerning that speech – such as the usage of certain colors, background graphics, or font size – are expressive elements that warrant full constitutional protection. But a recent cyberattack against Twitter followers of the Epilepsy Foundation blurred that line. In November 2019, internet hackers sent a series of videos and flashing images to thousands of individuals affiliated with the Epilepsy Foundation. The transmission of that content was intended to trigger seizures in those with epilepsy. This begs the question: did the hackers’ messages containing strobe gifs constitute free speech protected under the First Amendment? Arguments have been waged on both sides, though no court has yet to address the question. This article answers with an emphatic no. Messages calibrated to inflict physical harm on the recipient are “virtual assaults” and are not entitled to First Amendment protection. This article defines a new cause of action for “virtual assault” and, in arguing that such an action would be constitutionally permissible, concludes that senders engaged in such conduct should not be permitted to skirt tort and criminal liability by hiding behind the right of free speech.

Keywords: First Amendment, media law, technology, free speech, criminal law, tort law

Suggested Citation

Ligon, Nicole, Virtual Assault (July 2020). University of Illinois Law Review, 2021, Forthcoming, Duke Law School Public Law & Legal Theory Series No. 2020-75, Available at SSRN: or

Nicole Ligon (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States

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