#cyberbullying | #cyberbully | Citing protected speech, Minn. court overturns telephone harassment conviction

Minnesota’s law banning stalking-by-telephone is overly broad and unconstitutional, the state Court of Appeals ruled in the case of a Rice County man who left angry phone messages with government officials.

The three-judge panel cited a recent state Supreme Court ruling that found the state’s cyberbullying ban to be overly broad. Like harassment by Twitter, the state’s stalking-by-telephone law similarly impedes free speech and violates the First Amendment to the Constitution, the court ruled.

In the current case, Jason Elliot Peterson was convicted in Rice County District Court on two counts of stalking. He was sentenced to a year in jail, but that was stayed pending his appeal.

Prosecutors said that in 2016 and 2017, Peterson repeatedly left voice mails for several employees of the county sheriff’s and Social Services departments complaining about his 2002 family law case. The recipients of the calls were frightening, the court said, citing instances where Peterson said “I’m coming for your

asses,” used expletives or threatened to “arrest” officials.

The appellate court listed three reasons for striking down the law.

The first is that the law criminalizes repeated calls and text messages regardless of their content, the court said in the decision written by Judge Diane Bratvold on behalf of Judges Louise Dovre Bjorkman and Lucinda Jesson.

Although stalking is illegal when directly linked to the facilitation of a crime, the Court of Appeals determined that the stalking-by-telephone statute goes too far because it prohibits behavior that requires no link to conduct linked to committing a crime.

Second, the court said the stalking-by-telephone statute requires criminal negligence that covers both intentional and unintentional speech.

Under that provision, a person can be convicted “even though the person does not intend or even know that his communication would frighten, threaten, oppress, persecute or intimidate the victim,” the court noted. The negligence requirement in the stalking-by-telephone law covers a wide range of protected communications “that have unintended, albeit reasonably foreseeable consequences,” the court said.

Finally, the court said the stalking-by-telephone law requires prosecutors to prove that the victim of the alleged stalking felt “frightened, threatened, oppressed, persecuted, or intimidated.”

In a footnote, the court acknowledged that some of Peterson’s statements may have been “true threats” that aren’t protected by the Constitution because he intended to “communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to” an individual or groups.

But the court said the existing stalking-by-telephone law could criminalize speech in which a constituent scares a lawmaker by repeatedly calling and threatening to run against them if they don’t pass gun legislation.

That’s speech that is at the core of what the First Amendment aimed to protect, the court said.

In the state Supreme Court ruling from June, the higher court struck down a cyberbullying law. That decision overturned a conviction for a juvenile, identified only as A.J.B. The juvenile was convicted of cyberbullying for an “unrelenting torrent or cruel tweets.”

Writing for the court Justice Paul Thissen said the state’s laws on mail harassment and stalking by mail are written so broadly that they impinge on free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution.

The state can ask the Supreme Court to hear the case, but the higher court is not required to take it up.

 

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