State appeals court rejects challenge to phone-harassment law

Tuesday, November 2, 1999

Connecticut's telephone harassment law does not violate the First Amendment, a state appeals court has ruled.

The law provides that people are guilty of harassment if they “with intent to harass, annoy or alarm another person … make telephone call[s] … in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm.”

Frank Bell was charged with violating the law after he made 45 telephone calls to the Quinnebaug Valley Youth and Family Services program – a program in which Bell's two children were enrolled by their mother.

In many of the phone calls, most of which were recorded, Bell criticized employees and used language that made employees feel threatened.

In late 1996 he was arrested and charged with violating the phone-harassment law. After being convicted in a trial court, Bell appealed, arguing that the law was unconstitutional. He also contended that his telephone calls were protected speech because they were made on matters of public concern — or matters of public importance — related to the welfare of children.

The Connecticut appeals court rejected the constitutional challenge to the statute itself by relying on earlier state and federal court decisions upholding the law. The appeals court in State v. Bell quoted one prior court decision which stated that “a telephone is not a public forum where, in vindication of our liberties, unreceptive listeners need to be exposed to the onslaught of repugnant ideas.”

The appeals court also rejected Bell's claim that his speech was protected because it was on a matter of public concern.

“Although the defendant claims that the statute prevents him from speaking out on matters of public concern, it merely prohibits purposeful harassment by use of the telephone and does not involve [F]irst [A]mendment concerns,” the court wrote in its Oct. 26 opinion.

“The statute proscribes conduct, not the content of speech,” the appeals court wrote. “The risk that the statute will have a chilling effect on the exercise of free speech is therefore remote compared with the prevalent misuse of telephones to harass others and to invade their privacy.”

Margaret Gaffney Radionovas, assistant state attorney, said the appeals court appropriately followed prior federal and state court decisions upholding the statute. “The defendant was not punished for any of his speech but his harassing conduct,” she said.>

Bell's attorney could not be reached for comment.