Proposed Connecticut “Cyber-Harassment” Law

The Raised Bill No. 456, sec. 2 would provide, in relevant part:

(a) A person commits electronic harassment when such person, with intent to harass, annoy or alarm another person, transmits, posts, displays or disseminates, by or through an electronic communication device, radio, computer, Internet web site or similar means, to any person, a communication, image or information, which is based on the actual or perceived traits or characteristics of that person, which: …

(2) Has a substantial and detrimental effect on that person’s physical or mental health;

(3) Has the effect of substantially interfering with that person’s academic performance, employment or other community activities or responsibilities;

(4) Has the effect of substantially interfering with that person’s ability to participate in or benefit from any academic, professional or community-based services, activities or privileges; or

(5) Has the effect of causing substantial embarrassment or humiliation to that person within an academic or professional community.

So say Michael Bellesiles says things that are false, and my colleague Jim Lindgren posts a devastating critique of Bellesiles’ work. This rightly should “caus[e] substantial embarrassment or humiliation to [Bellesiles] within an academic or professional community,” and rightly should “substantially interfer[e] with [Bellesiles’] … employment” (Bellesiles ultimately resigned under pressure from his tenured job because of what his critics, including Jim, pointed out about his work) as well as with Bellesiles’ “ability to … benefit from any academic[ or] professional … privileges.” [UPDATE: And the critique may well be based on Lindgren’s judgment about Bellesiles’ “perceived trait” of academic carelessness or even dishonesty.]

This means that the only thing that would stand between Jim and criminal prosecution — if Lindgren were in Connecticut, and the law were enacted — would be the question whether Lindgren had the “intent to harass, annoy or alarm another person.” Now knowing Jim Lindgren as I do, I’m sure he had no such intent. But some critics may well be so upset and offended by the behavior of the people they are criticizing that they might well have the intent to “annoy” with their criticism as well as the intent to inform the public. (Note that the statute requires just that there be an intent to harass, annoy, or alarm, not that this be the sole intent, likely because there is almost never a sole intent behind any human action.) [UPDATE: Note also that the law isn’t limited to speech that is said to the person being criticized: It applies to any communication “to any person,” not to “such person” (which would have referred back to the “another person” who is the target of the alleged harassment or annoyance).]

And of course that’s just one example. Customers who are publicizing what they see as business employees’ malfeasance could be criminals under this law. So could people who had been cheated on by their lovers, who inform their friends of the now ex-lovers’ misbehavior. So could crime victims who publicize their attackers’ misdeeds. So could newspaper reporters who are writing articles that criticize certain people — politicians, businesspeople, community activists, or others — and who are seen by prosecutors as being motivated by a desire to “annoy” the targets. And of course the law isn’t limited to threats, or libel, or any other First Amendment exception that has been recognized (or even hinted at) by the Supreme Court.

The law therefore strikes me as quite clearly unconstitutional, and I hope it will be defeated. I’m glad to see that the ACLU of Connecticut and the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association have taken the lead in criticizing the law. If anyone knows more about who the political backers of the law are — a Hartford Courant article says it what proposed by “state prosecutors,” but doesn’t say which ones — please let me know.

UPDATE: The law talks about “perceived traits or characteristics” of a person, and I read that to include traits such as perceived dishonesty, incompetence, stupidity, and so on. There’s certainly nothing in the statute to limit it to, say, race, religion, sex, weight, and so on. But even if it is so limited, the statute is unconstitutional — it would criminalize criticism of people (including, say, politicians and academics) based on their religious beliefs, or for that matter based on claims that a person shouldn’t be in some job because of his or her race, sex, and such.