When we think of the word cyber, we think of computers and virtual reality. But make no mistake about it, when you add stalking to cyber — as in cyberstalking — it is very real. And so, too, are its consequences.
Therefore, it makes sense that the state Legislature has enacted a cyberstalking law aimed at protecting people from the harm, emotional and otherwise, of cyberstalking.
But the constitutionality of the cyberstalking law approved is a legitimate question.
Under the state law, cyberstalking includes anonymous, repeated or obscene electronic communications sent “with intent to harass, intimidate, torment, or embarrass any other person.”
Since at least some of the cyberstalking banned includes speech, the law might be in conflict with the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.
The constitutionality of the law is now being tested in the judicial system. A case has now reached the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and could very well be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ultimately, we would like to see the law drawn somewhat narrower as to not overly restrict legitimate free speech.
In the case, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court recently overturned a lower-court decision that dismissed a challenge to the law by retired Air Force Maj. Richard Lee Rynearson III, according to The Seattle Times. The unanimous ruling reinstated a lawsuit that had been dismissed by U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton in Tacoma and sent the case back to him for further proceedings.
Rynearson faced allegations of online harassment against a neighbor who sought and obtained a protection order against Rynearson’s online activities. Rynearson sued to challenge the constitutionality of the law, alleging the statute is overbroad and violates the First Amendment.
Rynearson’s attorney Eugene Volokh, who teaches law at UCLA, said while laws against threatening speech may be legal, terms like “harass,” “torment” and especially “embarrass” are too broad and could be exploited by prosecutors.
It’s a valid concern.
Volokh is poised to test the bounds of this law, which could bring clarity to its constitutionality. The final ruling in court could be followed by some tweaking or a complete overhaul of the law by the Legislature.
In the end, while protecting people from cyberstalking is worth pursing by the Legislature, it can’t usurp free speech rights.