Hate Mail, Anyone?
Recently I was asked to write about internet harassment and threats from my professional perspective. The friend who asked this of me is on the receiving end of some nasty communications from someone who evidently doesn’t realize that criminal conduct can very easily take place at a computer keyboard, and is punishable as a crime by imprisonment and a fine.
The federal government regulates interstate and international communication pursuant to the Commerce Clause. That clause is found Article I, Section 8(3) of the U.S. Constitution. Not surprisingly, Congress has enacted a specific statute addressing harassing communications. All states have their own laws regarding harassing communications which are enforced within the state. When the people involved in the communication are in different states or different countries, or when at least one of them is in the District of Columbia, the federal law applies.
The current federal law, 47 U.S.C. Sec. 223, addressing harassing communications was first passed June 19, 1934. Yes, even that soon into the advent of private interstate telecommunication there were harassment problems. Some things just appear to be human nature.
I hope that I can cut through the legalese and give you an ordinary person’s “translation” of what the law says. The law mostly addresses telephone calls, but because of the nature of the world wide web, which is accessed through telecommunication, the law applies to users of the internet as well.
I’m not addressing commercial communications, which is what “SPAM” mostly is. This blog is intended to address only personal communications.
These are the actions that can get a person fined and a prison sentence of up to two years, whether the accused person does it or if he simply allows someone else to use his telephone or telecommunications device to do it:
1) Knowingly make, create, or solicit and then transmit obscene communications or child pornography under the following circumstances:
a) with the intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass another person; or
b) to a person under the age of 18;
2) Anonymous telephone calls or the anonymous use of a telecommunications device, including a computer, whether or not conversation or communication actually happens, with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person at the called number or who receives the communications;
3) Repeatedly making a telephone call or using a telecommunications device, whether or not conversation or communication actually happens, with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person at the called number or who receives the communications; or
4) Causing the telephone of another person to ring repeatedly or continuously, with intent to harass any person at the called number.
There are a couple of important things to note.
First, there doesn’t actually have to be communication. That is, the person receiving the communication doesn’t have to open the email and read it for it to constitute harassment under this law. If the sender is stuffing the recipient’s inbox with unwanted emails or sending lots of unwanted text messages to the person’s cell phone, harassment is obvious. If you go to your inbox and see 47 messages from one person in a the space of a couple of days, you know that harassment anticipated by this federal statute is taking place. People just don’t do that innocently.
Second, there has to be some evil intent on the part of the person sending the communication, except in the case of porn being transmitted to a person under the age of 18. In other words, if someone is just smitten with you, and emails you fawning poetry and love notes several times a day, they aren’t in violation of this law unless they really mean to bug the crap out of you. (Yes, in this situation “bug the crap out of you” can be a legal standard.)
So that’s the law in a nutshell, explained in ordinary language. I’m sure there are questions that you might have with specific scenarios. I’ll do my best to respond to them if you put them in your comments.
Disclaimer: I cannot give advice as to state law other than that of the State of Arkansas. This blog and the comments to it are not a substitute for a consultation with a legal professional in your jurisdiction about the specific facts affecting you. No attorney-client relationship is established by this blog and the comments to it.