Colorado Supreme Court takes on cyber bullying law: What should I know?
Our founders believed the freedom of speech was so important that it deserved constitutional protection. People may not always like to hear what we have to say, but that freedom is an important part of our country’s foundation. As a result, any law that limits our ability to speak freely will face challenge and the courts will review the law closely.
Why would anyone limit free speech?
There are various reasons, and many of them are good. One example is the fact that it is not okay to shout out “fire!” or otherwise cause chaos within a crowded theater unless there actually is a fire. The constitutional protections for freedom of speech also do not provide a right to incite criminal activity. Although these examples are relatively straight forward, there are other instances that are not as clear. One example involves harassment.
State legislatures throughout the country have tried to put together laws that protect citizens from harassment while also honoring our freedom of speech. Sometimes these laws run afoul of our constitutionally protected right to free speech. This was the case with a recent Colorado law that was meant to curb cyber bullying.
What was the case?
The case involved a woman who claimed her ex-husband had made vulgar comments with repeated emails. She also claimed he posted allegations on social media that she had given him a sexually transmitted disease. Based on these allegations, the state charged the man with harassment and domestic violence. The man countered that the law used to support the harassment charges was unconstitutional.
What was the law?
In 2015 Colorado lawmakers updated the state’s harassment laws. The state’s harassment laws make it illegal to communicate with others in a way that threatens bodily injury or property damage. The updates changed some of the language of the law and extended these protections to communications through email and social media. The changes were made in an attempt to curb dangerous cyber-bullying, but the man in the case above argued the changes went too far and were a violation of free speech.
What did Colorado’s Supreme Court change?
The agreed. In an effort to fix the law, the court took out the portion that states actions “intended to harass” were illegal harassment and left the rest. The court reasoned that this phrase was too broad and could result in unconstitutional restrictions on one’s free speech. They further pointed out that as written, the law could make it illegal to leave negative restaurant reviews on Google, send an upset email to a contractor who provided poor service or even for the local government to send out weather alerts.
It is important to point out that Colorado’s Supreme Court did not completely strike the law. Portions still remain. Notably, it is still against the law to communicate in a way that the court would deem threatens bodily harm or property damage or is otherwise viewed as obscene.
What should those who face allegations of cyber bullying learn from this case?
The laws are constantly evolving. Generally, if the state accuses you of cyber bullying, you face harassment charges. These rarely stand alone. There are likely additional criminal charges. The details of the penalties that can apply depend on the facts of the case. An attorney experienced in criminal law in Colorado can review the situation and discuss your options.