ACLU Seeks Dismissal Of "Cyberstalking" Charges Filed Against Two Narragansett Residents On Behalf Of Local Politicians
Says Charges Have Chilling Effect on Freedom of Speech
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Claiming that the Narragansett Police Department has “set a very dangerous precedent that could have a significantly chilling effect on freedom of speech by town residents,” the Rhode Island ACLU has called on the town’s Police Chief to drop criminal “cyberstalking” charges recently lodged against two town residents in separate incidents. The charges stem from vulgar comments the residents made about two local politicians on a Craigslist website devoted to “rants and raves.”
Themistocles Faraone was charged for posting comments on Craigslist about Douglas McLaughlin, a retired police officer and current and past Town Council candidate. Michael Handrigan was charged for his postings about James Durkin, a three-term member of the Town Council.
RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown said today: “We do not think it is a coincidence that both of the alleged ‘victims’ leading to these charges are politicians. While the comments that were posted are nasty, crude and offensive, they were not threatening in any way. We believe the police department’s decision to press criminal charges against these two residents is itself a troubling form of governmental bullying designed to stifle speech against public officials.” Brown noted the complainants were free to bring civil suits if they felt they were libeled by the offensive comments.
In a three-page letter sent to Police Chief Dean Hoxsie, the ACLU’s Brown said the charges not only raised serious free speech issues, but were baseless because the “cyberstalking” statute is limited to electronic communications that the alleged offender transmits directly to the “harassed” person or that “cause” that person to be contacted, not to the passive posting of information on a website. The letter said this distinction was made for good reason: “To expand the notion of ‘cyberstalking’ or ‘cyberharassment’ to cover any communication on the Internet, and not be limited to those actually directed to an individual, would run headlong into fundamental free speech problems. … For good or for bad, postings such as those allegedly made by Mr. Faraone and Mr. Handrigan are part and parcel of the rough and tumble of the World Wide Web.” The letter concluded:
“By inappropriately charging two individuals with a criminal offense for posting vulgar ‘rants’ on Craigslist, the Narragansett Police Department has cast a pall over freedom of speech for all residents of the town. Who knows how many townspeople now think twice about expressing their opinions online for fear that … a public official will argue that those opinions have caused them ‘substantial emotional distress’? We therefore strongly urge you to drop these charges and to instead advise the complainants that, if they wish to pursue the matter, they must do so through the civil courts, not by employing the prosecutorial powers of the state.”
Both Faraone and Handrigan are being represented by private counsel on the charges. A copy of the ACLU’s letter can be found online at www.riaclu.org.
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