N.Y. legislators seek to outlaw cyberstalking

Thursday, March 16, 2000

Taking aim at online crime, three New York legislators are pushing a measure that would criminalize cyberstalking.

Introduced late last month, Assembly Bill 9663 prohibits people from “engaging in a “course of conduct” or repeatedly committing acts “by electronic means … [that] … “over a period of time harasses, annoys, threatens or causes alarm intentionally placing or attempting to place another person in reasonable fear of physical injury, serious physical injury or death.”

The bill appears to have the support of many members of the New York Assembly. Assemblyman Michael Spano introduced the bill along with co-sponsors Assemblyman Pat Cassale and Assemblywoman Patricia Acampora. Twenty-seven other members of the Assembly have signed on to the measure.

However, two law experts find some of the bill’s language troubling.

Internet-law expert Jonathan Wallace, author of Sex, Laws and Cyberspace, finds the measure constitutionally suspect.

Wallace says the term “annoys” in the bill is particularly suspect. “This is very vague,” he said. “Speech can be very annoying but have significant First Amendment protection.

“I receive spam everyday that I consider annoying but the person sending it shouldn’t be locked up and convicted of a felony,” he said.

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh agrees that the use of the term “annoys” is troublesome. “It’s as if you could sue a newspaper for publishing things that might ‘annoy’ a subscriber,” he said.

However, “the courts will probably interpret this measure pretty sensibly and narrowly {if it becomes law) — as they’ve generally interpreted most telephone harassment statutes — so as to avoid these sorts of problems,” Volokh said.

Wallace describes cyberstalking bills as “politically popular,” saying politicians can “score easy points by proposing laws that target the evils of the Internet.”

He concedes that it is sometimes a tough call to determine whether speech is a true threat or protected speech.

The push for state legislators to enact cyberstalking legislation came from an August 1999 report from Attorney General Janet Reno entitled “Cyberstalking: A New Challenge for Law Enforcement,” which called it a “serious and growing problem.”

However, that same report noted that “care must be taken in drafting cyberstalking statutes to ensure that they are not so broad that they risk chilling constitutionally protected speech, such as political speech and other legitimate conduct.”

Efforts continue at both the federal and state level to protect people from cyberstalkers. Last September, a U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee heard testimony on the Stalking Prevention and Victim Protection Act. The bill has not been voted on the by full committee.

Earlier this year, a similar measure was introduced in the Rhode Island Legislature. That bill targeted speech that “seriously alarms or annoys” and that “would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress.”

Calls placed to Spano, Cassale and Acampora were not returned. The New York bill has been referred to the Assembly Committee on Codes.