Terrible Vermont Harassment Law Being Challenged After Cops Use It To Punish A Black Lives Matter Supporter Over Her Facebook Posts

from the we-need-better-laws-because-we-can't-count-on-justified-applications dept

In June 2020, in Brattleboro, Vermont, something extremely ordinary happened. Two residents of the community interacted on Facebook. It was not a friendly interaction, which made it perhaps even more ordinary.

Here’s the ordinariness in all of its mundane detail, as recounted in Brattleboro resident Isabel Vinson’s lawsuit [PDF] seeking to have one of the state’s laws found unconstitutional.

In June 2020, Christian Antoniello, a Brattleboro resident and the owner of a local business called the Harmony Underground, criticized the Black Lives Matter movement on his personal Facebook page, stating, “How about all lives matter. Not black lives, not white lives. Get over yourself no one’s life is more important than the next. Put your race card away and grow up.”

On June 6, Ms. Vinson posted on her own Facebook page and tagged the Harmony Underground’s business page. Ms. Vinson’s post stated: “Disgusting. The owner of the Harmony Underground here in Brattleboro thinks this is okay and no matter how many people try and tell him it’s wrong he doesn’t seem to care.” In the comments on her post, Ms. Vinson recommended that everyone “leave a review on his page so [Antoniello] can never forget to be honest,” and also tagged a Facebook group called “Exposing Every Racist.”

In response to Ms. Vinson’s Facebook post, a conversation thread ensued among several people, including Ms. Vinson, about her post, Mr. Antoniello, and other complaints about the business.

That’s when things stopped being normal, and started becoming increasingly more bizarre.

Several weeks later, Antoniello and his wife reported to the Brattleboro Police Department that they were being harassed on Facebook and that Ms. Vinson’s Facebook activity caused them to fear for their safety.

This is kind of a normal reaction. Kind of. Not everyone subjected to online pitchforks will choose to make it a police matter, but this couple did.

If you’re wondering where the criminal activity is, the Brattleboro police department has an answer for you.

On July 7, the Brattleboro Police Department cited Ms. Vinson under § 1027 based on her Facebook activity.

Here’s what the state law (Section 1027) says:

A person who, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, or annoy makes contact by means of a telephonic or other electronic communication with another and makes any request, suggestion, or proposal that is obscene, lewd, lascivious, or indecent; threatens to inflict injury or physical harm to the person or property of any person; or disturbs, or attempts to disturb, by repeated telephone calls or other electronic communications, whether or not conversation ensues, the peace, quiet, or right of privacy of any person at the place where the communication or communications are received shall be fined not more than $250.00 or be imprisoned not more than three months, or both.

It’s an amazingly broad law that criminalizes all sorts of speech since it can be stretched to fit nearly any speech a complainant doesn’t care for. “Harass” is a pretty non-specific term. “Annoy” is even more vague.

That’s the law being challenged by Vinson and the ACLU. It’s a vague, unconstitutional law. And it’s a law the PD obviously didn’t sincerely believe applied to Vinson’s Facebook post because it ditched everything about this highly questionable case the moment questions started being asked.

Two weeks later — following an ACLU public records request for all documents related to Vinson’s charge and prosecution — the Brattleboro PD approached Vinson and offered to drop the charges in exchange for her entering a diversion program that could be completed in lieu of criminal charges. Vinson refused to enter the diversion program and said she was seeking legal representation. Here’s what happened next:

Two days later, the Brattleboro police informed Ms. Vinson that she would not be charged.

All’s well that ends abruptly in the face of the slightest resistance. But the law is still on the books. If the Brattleboro cops may decide not to take a second swing at Isabel Vinson with this law, law enforcement officers in the state are still free to misuse the law to punish people for saying things other people didn’t like. And, needless to say, the vague law presents a perfect crime of opportunity for cops if a state resident says something cops don’t like. That’s why the state is being sued and the Vermont federal court being asked to declare the law unconstitutional. As it stands, the law presents an existential threat to free speech in the state. And Isabel Vinson’s experience in Brattleboro shows what can happen when the threat goes from theoretical to fully-realized.

Filed Under: , , , , , , , , ,
Companies: aclu, harmony underground

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Terrible Vermont Harassment Law Being Challenged After Cops Use It To Punish A Black Lives Matter Supporter Over Her Facebook Posts”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

"Get over yourself no one’s life is more important than the next. Put your race card away and grow up."

Well that statement annoys me, when shall I expect the arrest?

Oh its only meant to keep "those" people quiet & not speaking to their betters if they disagree?

sumgai (profile) says:

I may be too early to post, and thus I may be over-accusatory, but it seems to me that someone’s missing an important piece of the puzzle here. Most people tend to forget that the Bill of Rights is a set of amendments to the Constitution, and does not generally override that document in its entirety. There are specific amendments that do change specific parts, but none of those, and most spiritedly not 1A, change any part of "pursuit of life, liberty and happiness".

From that, we get the old meme: "Your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose". 1A does not give one the right to speak in a manner that provably endangers another person – that would upend the other’s right to pursuit of happiness. Even if one only expresses an opinion, if that opinion can be interpreted as endangerment to another (i.e. inciting one or more 3rd parties to partake in a campaign of harassment), then 1A provides no protection for the original speaker.

The law as written is not overly broad, though I do take issue with the narrowing of "other electronic means" – that specifically precludes any old-school written/printed communications, ala Letters To The Editor and so forth. I’d’ve stood for "any means", with no exclusions. But as it stands, it ameliorates not one’s freedom of expression, but one’s desire to express an opinion in an inflammatory manner, attempting to outrage others, and thus create a state of fear for the target party’s safety or life. Or that thing about pursuing happiness, you know.

That’s how the lawmakers envisioned it back then. Today we’d say "Vinson’s lawyers have weaponized the very word "opinion", and are attempting to cloak it with 1A." But hey, why not? #45 got away with it for more than 4 years, so….

Stated in short words, Antoniello expressed an opinion that a reasonable person would consider neutral at best. Vinson responded by swinging her fist at Antoniello’s nose, with the intent of connecting forcefully via social media outrage. One could opine that doing so is the equivalent of hiring a hitman to kill somebody, only she "purchased the hit" in public view. That’s not just a no-no, that a stupid no-no.

I predict a hard row to hoe for the plaintiff. But as usual, I’ve been wrong far more often in life than not, so I may be wrong here as well.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:


Did Vinson threaten Antoniello with violence from either Vinson or a third party? Did Vinson suggest someone should commit a criminal act against Antoniello? If the answer to both questions is “no”, you may want to reconsider your argument.

Saying (or implying) other people should leave bad reviews of a business/product you had a bad experience with is legal speech. Review bombing may be unethical, but it sure as shit isn’t illegal, and neither is a coordinated review bomb. It might feel like harassment to the person on the receiving end of that bomb, sure. But unless actual unlawful acts are being committed by these review bombers, nobody has broken a law worth a good god’s damn. People are legally allowed to have and express their opinions. This isn’t a hard argument to figure out; even the cops/DA didn’t want to enforce the shitty law mentioned in the article when faced with even slight pushback.

You’re standing on a shaky hill of an argument here, dude. You might want to ask yourself whether you’re willing to die on it.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

One could opine that doing so is the equivalent of hiring a hitman to kill somebody, only she "purchased the hit" in public view. That’s not just a no-no, that a stupid no-no.

And that person would not only be wrong but hilariously so. ‘Hey, this person is an asshole’ does not ‘and I would love it if someone were to kill them‘ make. As has been noted before the right to free speech is not shorthand for consequence-free speech, and your ‘right’ to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ does not give you a shield against criticism. If you act like a racist you don’t get to play the victim card if someone calls you out on it, even if that makes your life more difficult and/or less ‘happy’.

sumgai (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Well, that was certainly a lot of over-reaction, but I did expect such.

I think it’s fair to say that you all missed the point, and are harping on free speech. Let me be crystal clear – no matter how it is framed, if you inflame others to do something illegal, such as delivering death threats, then you are on the hot seat for having done so.

Color me cynical as hell, but I don’t believe for a moment that Vinson didn’t have exactly this intent in her missive – she wanted Antoniello to suffer the maximum amount possible, and while I can’t read her mind from here, I’ve no doubt that she would’ve accepted, and even encouraged, bodily harm as a minimum ‘justified retribution’ for her imaginary harm.

But what the hell, your mileage is varying dramatically from mine. So be it.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »