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Politician Uses Bad Cyberharassment Law To Shut Down Critic; Critic Hoping To Have Law Struck Down

Lots of anti-harassment laws have been written over the years. The creation of these laws has sped up as legislators look to find some way of handling cyberbullying and online harassment. These laws have been uniformly bad. Those that make it to governors' desks are often struck down shortly thereafter by courts.

The problem is legislators try to target certain behavior with these laws, but seldom consider the amount of protected speech that will be caught in the laws' webbing. Or maybe these thoughts never enter the minds of legislators, who tend to write these bills badly and broadly.

We've seen multiple statutes come tumbling down after a Constitutional challenge. Eugene Volokh -- along with Venkat Balasubramani -- is challenging Washington state's harassment law over its stripping of free speech protections.

A Washington state statute criminalizes (among other things) “mak[ing] an electronic communication to … a third party” “with intent to harass, … torment, or embarrass any other person” if the communication is made “[a]nonymously or repeatedly.” This deliberately extends beyond unprotected speech (such as true threats or libel). It deliberately extends beyond unwanted speech said to a particular person and forbids embarrassing speech said about that person. Repeatedly criticizing a politician on your blog, for instance, could send you to jail if a prosecutor and judge or jury concludes that you were intending to “harass,” “torment” or “embarrass.”

There are several problems with the law, not the least of which is its addition of anonymity to the list of criminal stipulation. As Volokh notes, the law could be used to imprison bloggers who repeatedly criticize politicians -- an activity the term "blogging" is pretty much synonymous with.

Raising the challenge is Richard Rynearson, a retired Air Force major who has repeatedly criticized politicians for failing to condemn the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes the indefinite detention of US citizens thanks to our engagement in the Forever War on Terrorism.

And it's no longer a hypothetical question of whether Washington's anti-harassment law can be used to prosecute people for criticizing politicians. There are potential criminal charges awaiting Rynearson, thanks to a local politician's decision to leverage this law against a critic.

Rynearson, of Bainbridge Island, has repeatedly written posts that criticize — but don't threaten — Clarence Moriwaki, a key activist behind the formation of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, commemorating the World War II internment of Japanese Americans.

He insists that those who condemn the internment should also strongly speak out against the government's indefinite detention powers in the war on terror, but that Moriwaki hasn't.

After Moriwaki obtained a temporary restraining order and filed a police report last spring, saying he was being harassed by incessant text messages and Facebook posts, investigators recommended that Rynearson be charged with cyberstalking.

A deputy prosecutor in Kitsap County suggested in an email to Rynearson's lawyer in that matter the office might file charges if his behavior continued, but he has not been charged.

Volokh and Balasubramani have filed a motion [PDF] asking the court for an immediate injunction preventing the enforcement of the law while it's being challenged in court. Hopefully, this temporary injunction will be followed by a permanent ban on enforcement, because it's an unconstitutional law.

The breadth of the statute extends in several dimensions. First, the intent provision — sweeping in speech that a jury might find was intended to “harass, intimidate, torment, or embarrass any other person” — reaches broadly. The terms “harass, intimidate, torment, or embarrass” are not defined by the statute. The Washington Supreme Court, in a case examining the similarly-worded telephone-harassment statute, has defined “intimidate” to include “compel[ling] to action or inaction (as by threats),” Seattle v. Huff, 767 P.2d 572, 576 (Wash. 1989), but it did not provide a definition for the other proscribed purposes.

When statutory terms are undefined, however, Washington courts generally give them their ordinary meaning, including the dictionary definition. See id. (defining “intimidate” by reference to definition in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary). The dictionary definition of “harass” includes “to vex, trouble, or annoy continually or chronically,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (online ed. 2017), and the meaning of “torment” includes “to cause worry or vexation to,” id. Finally, “embarrass” means “to cause to experience a state of self-conscious distress.” Id. As a result, even public criticisms of public figures and public officials could be subject to criminal prosecution and punishment if they are seen as intended to persistently “vex” or “annoy” those public figures, or to embarrass or make them “self-conscious” about something.

The granting of a temporary injunction rests on the plaintiff's ability to prove he's being harmed. To date, Rynearson hasn't been arrested, but the local prosecutors have refused to say whether they're taking any action or are dropping the complaint against the blogger. So, it's not a case of hypotheticals. Others criticized by Rynearson could file similar complaints under the harassment law, hoping to nudge prosecutors towards bringing criminal charges.

The permaban, however, hinges on the First Amendment. Given the language used in the law, it certainly doesn't appear the statute can be read to steer clear of infringements on protected speech. This law was passed in 2004, but no one felt like abusing it to silence criticism until just recently. Now, the law will finally be examined by a federal court where it's unlikely to withstand Constitutional scrutiny.

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