Texas phone-harassment law survives free-speech challenge

Tuesday, January 4, 2000

A Texas appeals court has upheld the constitutionality of the state's phone-harassment law, rejecting a claim that the law is unconstitutionally vague.

David Miller Townsend Jr. contended that his conviction under the phone-harassment law should be dismissed because the law had not sufficiently defined what conduct is prohibited.

In December 1996, a jury convicted Townsend of violating the phone-harassment law by repeatedly calling Houston attorney Cameron Vann over several months in 1994. Even after the Houston Police Department sent Townsend a letter asking him to stop, he persisted in calling repeatedly.

On appeal, Townsend pressed his argument that the statute was unconstitutionally vague. The Texas appeals court affirmed the conviction in its Dec. 30 opinion in Townsend v. State.

The appeals court noted that “if a statute concerns First Amendment rights, there must be greater degree of specificity than in other contexts.”

However, the court said the language of the statute was specific enough to survive First Amendment scrutiny, since the law provides that:

“A person commits an offense if, with intent to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment or embarrass another, he … causes the telephone of another to ring repeatedly or makes repeated telephone communications anonymously or in a manner reasonably likely to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, embarrass or offend another.”

The appeals court cited its 1997 decision DeWillis v. State as proof that the law had survived a First Amendment challenge. Citing DeWillis, the appeals court wrote last week that “there is no authority for the proposition that making repeated telephone calls in a manner reasonably likely to harass and annoy another is a constitutionally protected activity under the First Amendment.”

Julie Klibert, the assistant district attorney for Harris County who handled the case for the state, says the statute is constitutional. “The law adequately defines what is harassment and also limits it to certain conduct,” she said. “The appeals court properly found that the law is neither unconstitutionally overbroad or vague.”

Townsend, who represented himself, could not be reached for comment.