Student Found Guilty Of 'Disturbing The Peace' For Sending Nasty Political Email To Professor
from the wow dept
As we all know, online debates can spiral out of control pretty quickly — with name calling and people quickly jumping to extremes. This is especially true in the political arena, where various positions are stereotyped and extreme passions come out quickly. I tend to find such discussions tiresome. However, they occur all the time (occasionally here in our own comments). But could you consider such a conversation disturbing the peace? It appears that’s exactly what happened to a student in Nebraska who had a rather nasty political email exchange with a professor.
The student and the professor exchanged a series of emails over a short period of time. The two were at opposite ends of the political spectrum (which side was which, honestly, doesn’t and shouldn’t matter), and the student used some nasty language and accused the professor of being a traitor among other things. To be honest, if you’ve spent any time in online political discussions, this really isn’t particularly out of the ordinary — and (somewhat amazingly) after a back-and-forth exchange where the professor asked the student to stop emailing him and noting how insulted he was by the emails, the student did send a long apologetic email, telling the professor he was sorry that he got so riled up, and he really liked the professor and just wanted to debate someone intelligent who viewed the world from a very different perspective.
A few months went by, and then the professor received two anonymous emails from a new Yahoo email address that used the professor’s name as part of the address (the username was “averylovesalqueda”), again ranting politically against the professor. The professor found the emails threatening and turned them over to the police. The police eventually tracked the emails down to the same student who was then charged with disturbing the peace. Yes. Disturbing the peace. For sending a nasty email.
First Amendment scholars look out. Who knew that sending a private ranting email could disturb the peace?
Amazingly, a lower court and now the appeals court agreed and the student has been convicted of disturbing the peace for sending those emails. The court even claims that the email address itself is libelous which seems quite difficult to square with reality. No one would look at that email address and assume that it was actually from the professor in question, and there’s no indication that anyone outside of the professor himself ever saw the email address in question. O’Toole, in his post, puts the blame not on the judges, but on the student, who chose to defend himself, and appears to have done a pretty poor job of it, now leaving this ruling to be used as a citation in other cases. This is bad news no matter how you look at it. Even granting O’Toole’s premise that the student is at fault for defending himself (and doing such a poor job of it), it’s still bothersome that a judge wouldn’t take basic First Amendment rights into consideration here.