There are Limits to the First Amendment…in Massachusetts

The Constitutional Law Professor’s blog reports:

In its unanimous opinion today in Commonwealth v. Johnson, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld the state’s criminal harassment statute as applied to “conduct” that largely involved speech and often occurred using electronic means.

The statute provides that whoever “willfully and maliciously engages in a knowing pattern of conduct or series of acts over a period of time directed at a specific person, which seriously alarms that person and would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress, shall be guilty of the crime of criminal harassment.”

Of particular First Amendment concern is the statute’s provision that the

conduct or acts described in this paragraph shall include, but not be limited to, conduct or acts conducted by mail or by use of a telephonic or telecommunication device or electronic communication device including, but not limited to, any device that transfers signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic, photo-electronic or photo-optical system, including, but not limited to, electronic mail, internet communications, instant messages or facsimile communications.

The facts are rather chilling, escalating from incidents that might properly be called “pranks” to incidents that were clearly malicious. The defendants, the Johnsons, were involved in a protracted property and business dispute with the victims, the Lyons. The defendants and their “handyman” placed a false advertisement on Craigslist, causing many people to arrive at the Lyons’ home to collect free golf carts, and then another advertisement on Craigslist selling a motorcycle and directing interested persons to call Mr. Lyons after 10:00 pm. Next, there was an email entitled “Let the Games Begin!” that included the victims’ personal information, including social security number and banking information. Then there was an an after-hours emergency call to the child abuse hotline reporting physical abuse to a child, resulting in a 10:30pm visit from child protective workers to the home. And finally, there was an email, followed by a letter, to Mr. Lyons from a fictitious person accusing him of sexual molestation of the writer when the writer was 15.

 

Read more here.

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