Maryland appeals court upholds state’s anti-harassment law

Thursday, February 10, 2000

Maryland’s anti-harassment statute, which prohibits conduct that “alarms or seriously annoys another person,” does not violate the First Amendment, a state appeals court has ruled.

In 1995, George Galloway Jr. was sentenced to 12 years in prison for stalking and kidnapping Kimberly Jabin. While serving time in jail in 1997 and 1998, Galloway mailed 122 letters to Jabin, continuing to send them after repeated requests to stop. He was charged under the state’s anti-harassment law after sending the letters.

In November 1998, a trial court found Galloway guilty of violating the anti-harassment law. On appeal, Galloway argued that the state law violated his First Amendment free-expression rights.

The state law provides: “A person may not follow another person in or about a public place or maliciously engage in a course of conduct that alarms or seriously annoys another person:

  1. With intent to harass, alarm or annoy the other person.
  2. After reasonable warning or request to desist by or on behalf of the other person; and
  3. Without a legal purpose.”

Galloway contended that the law was both unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. The law was vague, he argued, because it is impossible for people to know what conduct will “seriously alarm” or “annoy” another person.

However, the Maryland appeals court ruled the law constitutional in Galloway v. State. The terms “alarm” and “seriously annoy” are “commonly understood words, and thus, persons of common intelligence need not guess at their meaning,” the court wrote in its Feb. 1 opinion. “It strains credibility to suggest that appellant [Galloway] could not reasonably understand that these letters would alarm or seriously annoy a woman who is the victim of his prior crimes of kidnapping and stalking.”

The appeals court also rejected Galloway’s argument that the law was unconstitutionally overbroad because it prohibited protected speech as well as unprotected speech.

The court cited a 1990 Maryland Supreme Court case, State v. Eanes, in which the state high court upheld a telephone harassment law. The Maryland appeals court in its Galloway decision also cited decisions from Connecticut and Michigan in which state appeals courts ruled their respective harassment laws constitutional.

The appeals court again focused on the unique facts of the Galloway case, writing: “We can think of few, if any, circumstances when a person’s right to be free from the intrusion of frequent personalized mail deserves more protection than when the mail recipient is the victim of a prior kidnapping and stalking by the sender of the letters.”

Claudia Cortese, the attorney who represented Galloway, said a decision had not been made whether to appeal. The assistant attorney general who represented the state has not returned messages.