Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court: Cyber-harassment is not protected free speech

In a decision affirming the convictions for criminal harassment of William and Gail Johnson, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled that cyber-harassment is not protected free speech under the First Amendment.

Laurel Sweet, reporting for the Boston Herald, summarized the underlying facts of the case:

The case in question involved Andover real estate developers William and Gail Johnson, who were convicted of criminal harassment in 2011 for arranging to have information posted online about neighbors they’d been embroiled in a feud with over land that falsely claimed the victims — married business executives — had property they wanted to sell or give away. The postings included ads on Craigslist advertising golf carts on their yard, free for the taking, as well as the victims’ address and phone number, and an ad seeking to unload their fictitious dead son’s Harley Davidson motorcycle for $300, according to court documents.

…William “Bill” Johnson was additionally convicted of filing a false child-abuse report [against one of the targets].

In Commonwealth v. William P. Johnson, the Court held that “a pattern of harassing conduct that includes both communications made directly to the targets of the harassment and false communications made to third parties through Internet postings solely for the purpose of encouraging those parties also to engage in harassing conduct toward the targets” was not constitutionally protected speech.

Implications for bullying and the workplace

It’s important to clarify that this ruling does not create an independent legal claim — criminal or civil — for online harassment or bullying. Rather, it holds, in essence, that the application of the state’s criminal harassment statute to online harassment does not violate the free speech clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Nevertheless, Laurel Sweet’s lede paragraph may resonate with readers of this blog when she refers to “Internet ‘cyberharassment’ and lies posted online for the purpose of encouraging others to join in the bullying” as a way of capturing the essential facts of the case.

Indeed, the SJC’s decision recognizes that intentional, malicious harassment is a form of wrongful conduct, not “free speech.” In doing so, the ruling implicitly undermines claims that anti-bullying laws are all about political correctness and clamping down on freedom of expression.

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