In an important legal decision upholding the convictions of two defendants for criminal harassment, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled that internet harassment (or “cyber-harassment”) does not constitute free speech, protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Veteran Boston Herald courthouse reporter Laurel Sweet reported on the story, noting that the case under review, Commonwealth v. William P. Johnson, involved two Andover real estate developers named William and Gail Johnson. Both of these defendants were convicted of criminal harassment in Lawrence District Court in 2011. William Johnson was sentenced to 18 months in jail; his wife Gail Johnson was sentenced to six-months in jail for her role in the harassment scheme. The pair wanted to subdivide and develop land in Andover, but an abutting neighbor, James J. Lyons Jr., and his wife, Bernadette Lyons, opposed their plans, as well as did other neighbors. Both the District Court in Lawrence as well as the SJC found that the Johnsons launched their harassment campaign after the Lyons opposed the Johnsons’ development plans. According to the SJC, the Johnsons’ harassment included William Johnson falsely reporting to the state Department of Children and Families that James Lyons had sexually abused a boy. “They literally tried to have our kids taken away from us,” James Lyons, who is now a state representative, commented that “These people invested [their] time and money to torture my wife, my boys, and myself.”
The Johnsons also paid a third party to post false information online that claimed that the Lyons’ had property they wished to sell or give away, resulting in their phone lines and email accounts being deluged by strangers responding to the false ads. The postings even included Craigslist ads which advertised free golf carts on their yard for pickup by anyone, providing the Lyons’ address and phone number. Even worse, the Johnsons paid this third party to also post an online ad under the Lyons’ name, claiming that the Lyons’ had were selling their deceased son’s Harley Davidson motorcycle for $300. The Lyons never lost a son. All in all, abominable behavior.