A federal trial court has deemed Washington's cyberstalking law to be unconstitutionally broad and in violation of the First Amendment. The case is a huge win for proponents of free speech, everywhere, and draws an important line in the sand between permissible conduct and poor attempts to regulate cyberstalking and harassment.
Seattle Man Challenges Washington's Cyberstalking Law
Richard Rynearson is a local activist who writes about the expansion of executive power in the U.S. since the September 11 attacks. In particular, Rynearson is concerned with the detention of American citizens without trial. Rynearson was attracted to local efforts to memorialize the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, as it involved the indefinite detention of American citizens, but he became disillusioned with the movement because its leaders refused to condemn President Obama alongside President Trump for his use of executive power.
Leaders of the memorialization effort used Washington's cyberstalking law to obtain a restraining order against Rynearson for his repeated calls for them to be removed from their positions. Prosecutors even considered filing criminal charges.
Rynearson went to the federal court and sought a preliminary injunction to stop them from using the cyberstalking law to regulate his speech.
Washington's Cyberstalking Law
Washington's cyberstalking law is RCW 9.61.26. The important, and dangerously broad, provision in the statute is subsection (1)(b), which makes it a crime to anonymously or repeatedly make an electronic communication “with intent to harass, intimidate, torment, or embarrass any other person.” This problem with this provision is that it could, in theory, be used to reach and criminalize important public commentary and criticism – speech that is protected by the First Amendment.
Federal Court Declares Cyberstalking Law Violates First Amendment
The district court recognized, correctly, that repeatedly embarrassing another person online is something that lots of people do when they talk about politics or other important topics that they have a First Amendment right to discuss. In fact, the line between voicing strong criticism and embarrassing someone can be very vague, especially as many people are embarrassed to be proven wrong in a public discussion. As the court said, “even public criticisms of public figures and public officials could be subject to criminal prosecution and punishment if they are seen as intended to persistently ‘vex' or ‘annoy' those public figures, or to embarrass them.”
Such public criticisms are at the heart of the First Amendment's protections of free speech, so the cyberstalking statute had to be struck down. Arguments that the statute could be read in different ways to avoid infringing the First Amendment were moot – the Municipal Court had spoiled them by reading the plain language of the cyberstalking statute and issuing a restraining order to prevent speech that was protected by the First Amendment.
Cyberstalking and Domestic Violence Defense Lawyer Steve Karimi
This decision is long overdue. Washington's cyberstalking law was the result of political point-scoring rather than legislative wisdom, and reached way too far into people's lives. Steve Karimi defends against these sorts of laws, protecting Washington citizens from over-regulation. Contact him online or call his law office in Seattle at (206) 621-8777 if you have been accused of stalking or domestic violence and want to fight the charges.