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Cannibal Cop’ to Walk Free: What it Means for Internet Speech

Image: Gilberto Valle

Gilberto Valle, center, leaves Manhattan federal court in New York on Tuesday, July 1, 2014. A federal judge overturned the conviction of the former New York City police officer accused of plotting to kidnap, kill and eat young women. (AP Photo/Seth Weng) Seth Wenig / AP

When it comes to murder and cannibalism, where do we draw the line when it comes to online fantasies?

At least for New York police officer Gilberto Valle, who the tabloids dubbed the “Cannibal Cop,” the decision was made by a federal judge who overturned his conviction on Tuesday due to lack of sufficient evidence.

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Valle never actually murdered or ate anybody. Instead, he reportedly talked about it with another member of the “vore” community that he met on the site DarkFetishNet, a self-described “friendly place for all people with dark fetishes.”

“Vore” is short for “vorarephilia,” a sexual fetish where people are aroused by the idea of eating someone or being eaten. Valle reportedly talked about killing and eating at least five women that he knew, including his soon-to-be wife.

“I have longed to butcher and cook female meat,” he wrote, according to testimony of FBI agent Corey Walsh.

He was convicted but never sentenced on kidnapping conspiracy charges. The conviction was overturned by Manhattan Federal District Court judge Paul G. Gardephe, who said in an opinion that it is “more likely than not the case that all of Valle’s Internet communications about kidnapping are fantasy role-play.”

Before the Web, people like Valle would have to keep their fantasies hidden. That is not the case today.

“There is a lot of discussion and research that needs to be done about the limits and boundaries of what people do online.”

“Because of the Internet, they can find people like themselves — their own online worlds where they can role-play online,” Chris Kraft, co-director of clinical service at the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins University, told NBC News.

That means these kinds of cases are probably not going away. Not with this specific sets of facts and circumstances, of course. The judge’s ruling only sets precedent in the district that it was made, and not all cases will involve an NYPD officer who accessed a law-enforcement database for information about the women he wrote about killing and eating.

But that does not mean it’s not an important decision, Clay Calvert, a constitutional law professor at the University of Florida, told NBC News.

“They are not bound to follow this line of reasoning in other districts, but it certainly puts it down on paper for the first time,” he said. “There is a line of reasoning about the Internet here that is important.”

In similar cases in the future, “Prosecutors might look at that and say ‘We need to get more evidence before we go further,’” Calvert said.

This is not limited to “vore” culture. It’s easy to imagine prosecutors charging a pedophile for talking about abducting a child. In Kraft’s experience, many judges have the assumption that if men “look at child pornography online and are aroused by it, they are going to grab a kid.”

“We don’t have any research that shows that, even in extreme cases,” he said, noting that the vast majority of people who talk online about illegal sexual desires don’t act on them.

We should still closely monitor and charge people who cross the line between thought and action, he said. But one big problem is that we know so little about the connection between fantasizing about something illegal online and acting on it.

“It’s really hard to do research on sexuality because the federal government won’t fund it,” he said. “There is a lot of discussion and research that needs to be done about the limits and boundaries of what people do online.”