from the fixing-stupid dept
When legislators craft unconstitutional laws, it’s a safe bet the first people to abuse them will be members of the government. We’ve seen this happen with outdated criminal defamation laws and the new wave of “Blue Lives Matter” legislation. Attempts to curb online evils like cyberbullying and revenge porn tend to disregard the First Amendment. If they’re not challenged, they go on to be tools deployed by government officials to silence critics.
That’s what happened in the state of Washington. A vociferous government critic found himself targeted by a displeased politician who used the state’s cyberstalking law to obtain a very restrictive protective order to silence his online nemesis. As the federal court notes in its decision [PDF], the speech the critic engaged in is the very reason for the First Amendment’s existence. (via Courthouse News)
Rynearson is an online author and activist who regularly writes online posts and comments to the public related to civil liberties, including about police abuse and the expansion of executive power in the wake of September 11. Rynearson’s writings are often critical—and sometimes harshly so—of local public figures and government officials. These writings are well within the traditions of independent American political discourse, and are intended both to raise the awareness of other citizens regarding the civil-liberties issues that Rynearson writes about, and to hold civic and political leaders accountable to the community through pointed criticism. This sort of expression is at the very heart of political speech which the First Amendment most strongly protects.
Rynearson’s online posts were highly critical of politicians he felt didn’t condemn the indefinite imprisonment of foreigners, something authorized by the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act). One politician he felt was too enthralled with indefinite detention was Clarence Moriwaki.
[I]n February 2017, Rynearson wrote a series of public posts on Facebook criticizing Clarence Moriwaki, the founder of the Bainbridge Island Japanese-American Exclusion Memorial (“Memorial”), for failing to criticize Governor Inslee and President Obama for voting for/signing the NDAA. The thrust of Rynearson’s posts was that Moriwaki should be removed from his role as board member and de facto spokesperson for the Memorial because Moriwaki used the lessons of the internment, and his role with the Memorial, to criticize Republican politicians (chiefly, President Trump) in many media articles or appearances related to the Memorial, but failed to criticize Democratic politicians.
As the court notes, Rynearson used “invective” and “ridicule” to make his points. Moriwaki reported this ridicule (which, as the court points out, did not contain obscenity or threats) to local law enforcement. This did not result in an arrest, but Rynearson received a letter from the prosecutor notifying him she would “revisit” the possibility of prosecuting him if he didn’t shut the hell up.
This also resulted in Moriwaki obtaining a protective order against Rynearson — one that decided the First Amendment simply didn’t exist.
For a period of time, from March 2017 to January 2018, Rynearson was also subject to a civil protection order imposed by the Bainbridge Island Municipal Court based on posts critical of Moriwaki. Moriwaki v. Rynearson, No. 17-2-01463-1, 2018 WL 733811, at *12 (Wash. Sup. Ct. Jan. 10, 2018). The cyberstalking statute was one of the statutes invoked by the Municipal Court in imposing the protection order. Moriwaki, 2018 WL 733811, at *5. The order imposed sharp limits on Rynearson’s speech, such as barring the use of Moriwaki’s name in the titles or domain names of webpages.
This order was vacated by the same court after Rynearson’s Constitutional challenge. Now, Rynearson is challenging the law itself, pointing out (very reasonably) that the law’s unconstitutional restrictions could see him on the receiving end of future protective orders or criminal charges.
The federal court says Washington’s law is unconstitutionally overbroad, threatening a whole lot of protected speech.
Section 9.61.260(1)(b)’s breadth—by the plain meaning of its words—includes protected speech that is not exempted from protection by any of the recognized areas just described. Section 9.61.260(1)(b) criminalizes a large range of non-obscene, non-threatening speech, based only on (1) purportedly bad intent and (2) repetition or anonymity.
The state couldn’t come up with much to defend its bad law — just a couple of unpublished opinions that don’t say quite what the state imagines they say. The federal court offers its rebuttal, which only cites the highest court in the land.
[T]he Supreme Court has consistently classified emotionally distressing or outrageous speech as protected, especially where that speech touches on matters of political, religious or public concern. This is because “in public debate our own citizens must tolerate insulting, and even outrageous, speech in order to provide ‘adequate breathing space’ to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment.”
With that, the federal court declares the law unconstitutional, handing Rynearson an injunction preventing the state of Washington from using the law against him.
Based on the record before the Court it is highly likely that in the final analysis the Court will declare the provision is unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable. Anonymous speech uttered or typed with the intent to embarrass a person as here, is protected speech. The plain meaning of the italicized words render 9.61.260(1)(b) unconstitutional.
For the reasons given here, this Court concludes that RCW 9.61.260(1)(b) is facially unconstitutional.
The law is effectively dead. The only thing surprising about this is that the law has survived so long without being struck down. For 15 years, it’s been illegal to “embarrass” people online. It took a politician abusing the law to silence a critic to finally get it struck down.