Brie: It's What's For Breakfast

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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.

May 29, 2007 - Posted by | Arkansas, Lawyer


  1. I am receiving hate mail through the postal service in my mail box. There is no return address but I know where it’s coming from. What do I do?

    Comment by Kate | December 31, 2012 | Reply

    • Notify the police. This is harassment, and there are laws against harassment.

      Comment by Aramink | December 31, 2012 | Reply

  2. i have recieved hatemail from my former husbands wife who lives with our son in Alaska
    am scared that she might hurt my son
    please advice

    Comment by lydia | September 29, 2010 | Reply

    • I am sorry; I cannot give you legal advice. Please contact the police.

      Comment by Aramink | December 13, 2010 | Reply

  3. There are not any laws against most hate mail, the CDA (communications decency act) was passed in 1996 to prevent repeated phone calls to or annoy someone (Im assuming that includes texting) but in 1997 it was declared unconstitutional the Child Online Protection act (COPA) was also passed to protect for child pornography ect. but was also declared unconstitutional because of the first amendment of freedom of speech. Now these sites have to require you to say i accept that I am over 18 but a child could just say that. other laws have been passed too but none have stayed very long or been very affective. The government can only regulate Radio broadcasts and television because they technically own those frequencies and just let companies rent them. The government cannot currently control P2P connections (Peer to peer) which is essentially what the internet is. This is a big way for Intolerant people or racists to use telecommunications as a vehicle for hate crimes with big effects. Megan Meier was a victim of this through facebook and in the end killed herself because of one of her friends PARENTS set up a fake facebook and harassed her. They were not prosecuted and the media did not even post their names up until recently because they didn’t want to “hurt” their daughter. this is just one of the many cases where cyber bullying and other have lead to cases were the offender could not be prosecuted.

    Comment by John | March 19, 2008 | Reply

  4. Report it to your local police. They take care of notifying the police where the sender lives.

    Comment by Aramink | January 29, 2008 | Reply

  5. how can i report hate mail? The sender lives in another state

    Comment by Steve | January 29, 2008 | Reply

  6. I’m from Arkansas and I didn’t know we had any laws against harassing text messages. I have an ex-boyfriend that will not stop texting me. Two months ago, I notified the police with my concern. They spoke with him and informed him he would be arrested if he continued to text me. He stopped, until now. Again, he is texting me all the time. I replied one time and said, We are not friends, do not talk to me, you cannot be trusted. He freaked. Went from Mr. Nice guy to-You are gonna make me kill myself. Next, came the insults. I called the police only to find that because I texted him back once, that I am encouraging him and there’s nothing I can do but ignore him. I am floored. I called Cingular and they said I cannot block him from calling or texting me. They said I can change my # and it will cost $35. I am a single mother and cannot afford to do that. It cost me everytime he texts, even if I don’t read the message. I guess the police called him because he texted “Thanks a lot for calling the cops on me again.” I am simply amazed. I can’t believe that no-one can make this unstable maniac leave me alone. He has also been barred from my work by my boss.

    Comment by Sarah | October 14, 2007 | Reply

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