[JURIST] The New York Court of Appeals [official website] ruled [opinion] 5-2 Tuesday that a criminal cyberbullying statute enacted by the Albany County Legislature [official website] violated the First Amendment. The defendant, a 15-year-old high school student, was criminally prosecuted under the law after he “anonymously posted sexual information about fellow classmates on a publicly-accessible internet website.” The legislature defined cyberbullying as:
any act of communicating or causing a communication to be sent by mechanical or electronic means, including posting statements on the internet or through a computer or email network, disseminating embarrassing or sexually explicit photographs; disseminating private, personal, false or sexual information, or sending hate mail, with no legitimate private, personal, or public purpose, with the intent to harass, annoy, threaten, abuse, taunt, intimidate, torment, humiliate, or otherwise inflict significant emotional harm on another person.
The court, in their opinion, acknowledged that while, “the First Amendment permits the prohibition of cyberbullying directed at children” the specific language of the statute as drafted “prohibit[s] types of protected speech far beyond the cyberbullying of children.” The court held that the law’s broad language could criminalize a “broad spectrum of speech outside the popular understanding of cyberbullying,” including communications aimed at “adults, and fictitious or corporate entities.” The court declined to follow Albany County’s recommendation that the court sever from the bill just the portions that violated the First Amendment, instead, concluding that it was not a permissible use of judicial authority to significantly modify the applications of the county law. The court’s ruling is the first to evaluate [Reuters report] the constitutionality of cyberbullying laws, which more than a dozen states have enacted.
Last month the US Supreme Court agreed to rule in a case dealing with threats posted on Facebook [JURIST report]. In Elonis v. United States [docket] the question presented is: “Whether, consistent with the First Amendment and Virginia v. Black [opinion], … conviction of threatening another person requires proof of the defendant’s subjective intent to threaten, as required by the Ninth Circuit and the supreme courts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont; or whether it is enough to show that a ‘reasonable person’ would regard the statement as threatening, as held by other federal courts of appeals and state courts of last resort.” Anthony Elonis posted threatening statements on his Facebook page and was convicted by a federal jury. The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld his conviction [opinion] under the “reasonable person” standard. The court will hear arguments on the case next fall.