Archive for December, 2011

Minnesota law banning emails and other communications for 50 years is constitutional

December 28, 2011

When a Minnesota court orders that an alleged domestic abuser cannot email, message, or otherwise contact the victim for 50 years, there is no First Amendment violation, according to a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision issued Monday.

A Minnesota man brought an appeal to challenge a law that authorizes courts to issue “orders for protection” 50 years in duration under certain circumstances.  In the case, the man had pleaded guilty assault and violating a prior order that his wife sought for her protection.  After the husband served time for stalking and harassing another woman, he again was arrested for violating the order issued with respect to his wife.

So the court issued another order for 50 years, pursuant to a Minnesota statute that forbids an alleged abuser from having any contact with the victim “whether in person, by telephone, mail or electronic mail or messaging, through electronic devices, through a third party, or by any other means.”

The husband’s claim was that the statute constituted a prior restraint on his right to engage in expression.  The court of appeals disagreed, likening the law to those that provide protest-free buffer zones around abortion clinics.  The court observed that such laws ban conduct, not speech.  The court went on to explain that state government has a “strong intrest in preventing violence in a domestic setting,” and that the law was narrowly tailored because it “applies only to the most persistent abusers.”

Fifty years is, indeed, a long time.   But the court was correct to characterize the law as one addressing actions, not speech.  The law bans all contacts with the victim, regardless of what the alleged abuser might say.  And that, under the First Amendment, is permitted.

The decision is the second this month in which the court rejected First Amendment challenges to court orders arising from domestic relations.  Earlier in December, the court ruled that blogging about a former girlfriend can constitute harassment and that a Minnesota man could be ordered to remove his blog from the internet.

Court of appeals orders for blog to be shut down

December 21, 2011

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled that blogging can constitute harassment, and has ordered a Minnesota man to remove his blog from the internet.

As the decision released last week explains, the blog at issue chronicled the blogger’s ongoing issues with a former girlfriend.  Writing in the third person, the blogger wrote about his former girlfriend’s alleged sexually and physically abusive relationships, and questioned the woman’s mental health.  He publicized and promoted the blog by sending electronic messages to his former girlfriend’s relatives and friends, and also set up fake Facebook identities to post the blog to other Facebook users.

The woman already had a no-harassment order in place, and after the blogging she went to court to successfully obtain another one—one that specifically prohibited “[a]ny email or other electronic message contact with third-parties that contains any material concerning [the former girlfriend] that affects or intends to adversely affect [her] safety, security, or privacy.”  The court’s order also directed the blogger to remove the blog form the internet.

On appeal, the blogger claimed blogging is “comparable to publishing pamphlets and leaving them on your front doorstep for the public,” and that the First Amendment protected his blogging.  The Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed.  The court acknowledged that “material published on the Internet receives the same level of protection as information published in other media.”  However, the court  held that “the constitution does not protect harassing words” and likened the blog to “fighting words” that that First Amendment does not protect.

The outcome makes sense, but the court’s reasoning could have been clearer.  Its blanket statement that “harassing words” cannot receive First Amendment protection is not entirely correct.  As the United States Supreme Court made case in the landmark case of R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, when government seeks to ban words instead of conduct, there might be an unconstitutional—and for many, an unfortunate—result.  (In the case of R.A.V., an invalidated criminal conviction for cross-burning.)

But on balance, what I think the  court of appeals was attempting to articulate was that the act of blogging can, under certain circumstances, constitute harassment.  And here, apparently, the blogger went beyond merely posting his content and took affirmative acts to make sure people who knew his former girlfriend saw his blog—efforts that, according to the court opinion, caused the former girlfriend distress.

And that, in the eyes of the law, is not protected conduct under the First Amendment or otherwise.