Mashaud v. Boone, Court Opinion Cites Eugene Volokh, Protect The 1st
In October, famed legal scholar and law professor Eugene Volokh demonstrated to an en banc hearing of the highest court in the District of Columbia that a Washington, D.C., anti-stalking statute that outlaws communications that inflict “significant mental suffering or distress” is overbroad, and thus violates the First Amendment.
Today, the D.C. Court of Appeals issued an opinion in Mashaud v. Boone in agreement with Volokh, who represented Protect The 1st as an amicus in this case. The court also agreed with Volokh’s contention that the court should narrow the law to speech that fits within First Amendment exceptions long recognized by courts – threats, obscenity, defamation, fraud, incitement, and speech integral to criminal conduct.
The law in this case, D.C.’s anti-stalking statute, “prohibits any speech that one should know would cause another to feel ‘seriously alarmed, disturbed, or frightened” or suffer “emotional distress.” The court vacated a lower court ruling that held an aggrieved husband liable for emails and social media posts that embarrassed a man who had conducted an extramarital affair with his wife.
The court based its reasoning in part on demonstrations by Volokh, Protect The 1st, and other amici who “argue the statute is constitutionally overbroad and would need to be struck down if it is not susceptible to a narrowing construction.” The court found that emotionally distressing speech as a category could subsume much speech that is necessary:
“Doctors deliver life-shattering prognoses that surely send reasonable people to suffer emotional tailspins of distress. Spouses knowingly inflict emotional distress by revealing longstanding paramours and demanding divorce. Police officers deliver news of loved ones having been killed. Judges pronounce death sentences. Employers tell staff that they are fired. They all know, or should know, the extraordinary distress their messages bring, and so fall within the statute’s prohibitions. Distressing speech is an important and often valuable part of life.”
The court turned to political communication at the highest rung of First Amendment-protected speech. Activists, from advocates of animal rights to the pro-life position on abortion, often hurl insulting words or graphic images. “Both speak on issues of public concern and are therefore entitled to the strongest First Amendment protections” despite the emotional distress such statements and images may inflict. Thus, the court reasoned, “a statute that prohibits speech indiscriminately based solely on its propensity for causing such distress is a constitutional nonstarter.”
Perhaps the court’s take on speech can be reduced to a quote from a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision, “the First Amendment needs breathing space.”
As Volokh has pointed out, the court did not strike down the D.C. law, but narrowed it to those discrete categories of speech that fall outside the scope of the First Amendment’s protection.
“We are overjoyed at this opinion from the Court of Appeals,” said Gene Schaerr, general counsel of PT1st. “We are proud to have been ably represented by Eugene Volokh and to have help vindicate the First Amendment’s protection against any laws that encroach on the freedom of speech.”
Eugene Volokh Represents Protect The 1st
Eugene Volokh, famed legal scholar and professor of law at UCLA, appeared before the judges of the D.C. Court of Appeals in Mashaud v. Boone. The result (go to 50:50 mark) is 26 minutes of rich discussion about the First Amendment and its limits.
The court’s en banc hearing examines the District of Columbia anti-stalking statute that makes it a crime to (among other things) “directly or indirectly … in person or by any means, on two or more occasions” communicate “about another individual” where the speaker “should have known” that communications would cause “significant mental suffering or distress.”
Judge Catherine Friend Easterly noted that this provision could apply to “every high school student in the District of Columbia,” to journalists and even to the court itself, since the court’s opinions often publicize unpleasant facts or allegations, thus causing significant emotional distress.
The facts of Mashaud are indeed emotional. A distraught husband learned that his wife, who worked at a firm as an intern, had an affair with a superior. The husband informed the company’s HR department about the extramarital affair, made posts on Facebook, and emailed the superior’s colleagues, family, and friends about it.
Volokh, Protect The 1st Senior Legal Advisor, argued that to avoid “overbreadth” and “vagueness” the court should limit the law to speech that fits within First Amendment exceptions long recognized by courts – such as fighting words, obscenity, threats, and fraud. To this he might also add narrow categories of highly sensitive personal information, such as Social Security numbers or where one’s children go to school.
Volokh cited Organization for a Better Austin v. Keefe, in which the Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling on First Amendment grounds. In that case, the Court allowed civil rights activists to distribute leaflets with a realtor’s phone number and urged people to call him to complain about his practices. Given that precedent, how could something as vague and broad as the DC statute stand?
Judge Easterly asked Volokh why the court should recognize these exceptions instead of just sending the whole section of that law regarding speech back to the DC council to revise. Volokh, happy to welcome that idea, noted that if the court wasn’t going to void that section of the law, it should at least limit its provisions to these well-established exceptions.
Volokh’s section of the oral arguments ends with a fascinating discussion about the enduring strength of the First Amendment despite the fact, Volokh noted, that the amendment is itself vague.