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.

Both of the Johnsons were convicted under M.G.L. Ch. 275, Sec. 43A, which criminalizes various forms of intentional harassment.

While this conduct by the defendants was reprehensible, the legal question was whether or not the internet postings that the Johnsons placed online to harass the Lyons, constituted “protected free speech” under the First Amendment. The answer: No. The Court held that “a pattern of harassing conduct that includes both communications made directly to the targets of the harassment and false communications made to third parties through Internet postings solely for the purpose of encouraging those parties also to engage in harassing conduct toward the targets” is not constitutionally protected speech.

The lesson? People cannot hide behind a computer screen if they are trying to intentionally harass another person. As a Boston criminal defense attorney, I think this is a sound ruling. Imagine what would result if the court had ruled that people could, essentially, legally get away with this type of egregious conduct. ‘Cyber harassment’ is becoming far more too common in our society today. This ruling says loud and clear that this type of conduct is a serious crime. Such conduct is the province of cowards and bullies. A ruling protecting the defendants here would have offended sound notions of not only legal jurisprudence, but common sense

An important point in this case: This ruling does not create an independent legal claim – either criminal or civil – for online harassment or online bullying. Instead, it clarifies that the application of the state’s criminal harassment statute, M.G.L. Ch. 275, Sec. 43A to online harassment does not violate the free speech clause of the U.S. Constitution.

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