Aggravated Harassment

Legal Blog Watch reports (via Sui Generis) that New York state is amending the crime of Aggravated Harassment to include electronic communication such as email and text messages.  Such amendments are necessary to create prosecutable cases that avoid the square-peg-in-a-round-hole nature of the government’s charge that Lori Drew violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act  in connection with Megan Meier’s suicide.

5 thoughts on “Aggravated Harassment”

  1. While I think Lori Drew’s actions were both childish and cruel, it’s a little bit of a stretch (in my mind) to call her behavior illegal. I see little difference between Megan’s suicide and the thousands of other teenage suicides that occur every year; almost all of them include bullying in some way or another. In Lori Drew’s case, she simply became an online bully. Are we going to just start putting bullies in jail?

    Granted, Lori Drew was old enough to know better. But Megan Meier could have blocked the “Josh Evans” account on Myspace at any given time, and she failed to. I think laws like these are just manifestations of America’s blame-game culture and lack of personal responsibility. If anyone is to blame, it’s the parents for not getting their clearly troubled young daughter on the proper medication. Passing more laws isn’t always the answer.

  2. I agree that the amendments were necessary, especially in a time where communication has evolved to exist in many more electronic forms. However, I’m afraid that practical jokes or SPAMMING could now be considered aggravated harassment.

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    Section 240.30 Aggravated harassment in the second degree.

    A person is guilty of aggravated harassment in the second degree when, with intent to harass, annoy, threaten or alarm another person, he or she:

    1. Either (a) communicates with a person, anonymously or otherwise by telephone, or by telegraph, mail or any other form of written communication, in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm; or (b) causes a communication to be initiated by mechanical or electronic means or otherwise, with a person, anonymously or otherwise, by telephone, or by telegraph, mail or any other form of written communication, in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm; or

    2. Makes a telephone call, whether or not a conversation ensues, with no purpose of legitimate communication; or

    3. Strikes, shoves, kicks, or otherwise subjects another person to physical contact, or attempts or threatens to do the same because of a belief or perception regarding such person’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation, regardless of whether the belief or perception is correct; or

    4. Commits the crime of harassment in the first degree and has previously been convicted of the crime of harassment in the first degree as defined by section 240.25 of this article within the preceding ten years.

    Aggravated harassment in the second degree is a class A misdemeanor.

    Section 240.31 Aggravated harassment in the first degree.

    A person is guilty of aggravated harassment in the first degree when with intent to harass, annoy, threaten or alarm another person, because of a belief or perception regarding such person’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability or sexual orientation, regardless of whether the belief or perception is correct, he or she:

    1. Damages premises primarily used for religious purposes, or acquired pursuant to section six of the religious corporation law and maintained for purposes of religious instruction, and the damage to the premises exceeds fifty dollars; or

    2. Commits the crime of aggravated harassment in the second degree in the manner proscribed by the provisions of subdivision three of section 240.30 of this article and has been previously convicted of the crime of aggravated harassment in the second degree for the commission of conduct proscribed by the provisions of subdivision three of section 240.30 or he has been previously convicted of the crime of aggravated harassment in the first degree within the preceding ten years.

    Aggravated harassment in the first degree is a class E felony.

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  3. I think Victor brings a valid point, one that I wanted to address in fact. The culture that exists in the new social media platforms is different than traditional social interaction. While the premise (staying in touch, keeping up on what is going on in friends’ lives) is the same, there is undoubtedly a unique culture to these new forms of media and social networking. Just as courts had and still have a challenge in understanding the internet and the rules by which it should be governed, the evolution of the internet is now presenting a similar challenge.

    When the internet first appeared as a space that needed to be governed or regulated in some fashion, the debate over how best to do so became rather intense. Personally, I prefer West Coast Code as an approach to regulation and governance with a bit of East Coast Code here and there to fill in necessary and inevitable gaps. While I like to think of technology as new mediums for doing the same things we have always done, I would also agree our culture has adapted and changed as well. To briefly illustrate this: We have always listened to music. We onced listened to music on say a record player, whereas now we use an iPod. Not much has changed other than the medium we use listen to music, except that as BU Law Professor Robert Bone noted how we listen has changed. This is the cultural change. Whereas with a record we would listen to the album as a whole work, meant to be considered from beginning to end with each track strategically ordered for artistic purpose, we now jump from artist to artist from track to track and even genre to genre. This is the cultural change, the role of which courts must be able to observe and analyze how it impacts a case.

    There is certain justification for the intent of this proposed law to incorporate texts, email and social networks into aggravated harassment, but as is typical of the legislature I fear it will ignore social and cultural context. Text messages, emails and other social networking tools have become common place, taken for granted and lost a sense of formality. To that extent, the informality with which we use those tools is perhaps different than the proposed legislation would place on the tools. Certainly we cannot ignore illegal activity via these tools, but context must be considered. Furthermore, the way a 14 year old uses these tools is different than a 21 year old or a 45 year old. Also, consider that it may be difficult to tell how unwanted communication may be via these mediums. When I speak directly to someone’s face I can usually garner some indication based on body language, etc as to whether my continued interaction with that person is welcome or not. In the land of text messages, emails, IM, Facebook, MySpace, etc basically the only welcome/unwelcome indicator one has is length between responses or an entire lack of response both of which could be due to numerous reasons beyond communication being unwelcome.

    Currently I cannot block text messages from an unwanted sender, my only option is to simply not read the message. On many social networking websites, instant messaging programs, etc an individual can choose levels of privacy and whether to block an individual from contacting them. A good first step with something like texting would be to encourage or force wireless carriers to provide a feature where the end user can choose to block unwanted numbers. While it might take some East Coast Code legislating and thereby mandating this, it is ultimately a West Coast Code solution.

    Clearly there must be some form of regulation over new mediums for communication, but to respond in a hasty fashion that disregards social context is as foolish as ignoring the problem altogether.

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