The Andover MA couples were once friendly neighbors, but then things took a terrible turn. William and Gail Johnson lived near Jim and Bernadette Lyons. The Johnsons wanted to develop land they owned that lay behind Lyonses property. The Lyonses objected, along with other neighbors. Years of litigation did not resolve or improve the situation.
In 2008, the Johnsons began to harass the Lyones. Here are some of the things they did:
Offered a free golf cart on Craigslist, with the Lyones’ address, posted by a friend.
Offered a motorcycle for sale on Craigslist, again with Lyones’ address, again posted by a friend
Had their friend send an anonymous email containing personal information, including their SSNs and the message “If you aren’t miserable, I ain’t happy!”
Tried to ruin their business.
Sent child protection state officials to Lyones’ home to investigate a completely false charge that the Lyones were abusing their son.
Having advised over a thousand stalking victims over the years, I’m quite familiar with this crime. These activities clearly fall under the stalking law or criminal harassment in Massachusetts. The most common stalker/victim type is a current or former boyfriend or husband who is stalking the woman he wants to keep from leaving or wants to get back. But a surprising number of stalking situations arise between people who are neighbors. Neighbors, not co-workers or people who have some other kind of relationship. Neighbors.
It makes a certain amount of sense. Neighbors can cause tension in many, many ways. A neighbor is someone you might not like, but can’t easily get away from, and might have to see often. Things that would be minor harassment, if only occasional, can become stalking if they are repeated.
William Johnson was tried and convicted of criminal harassment and sentenced to 18 months in jail. Gail Johnson was also convicted of criminal harassment and sentenced to 6 months.
The Johnson’s appealed their convictions, arguing that they had made no explicit threats and that they had a constitutionally protected right to speech, even speech that their neighbor didn’t like.
Freedom of speech is guaranteed by our constitution, but it has limits. We all know that you aren’t permitted to yell a false “Fire!” in a public theatre. But what about Johnson’s words, in email and on Craigslist? How does the First Amendment apply, or not, to that?
Fortunately, the state’s highest court, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, let the convictions stand. The court ruled that “the conduct in question was not protected speech but rather a hybrid of conduct and speech integral to the commission of a crime.”
In other words, stalking is a crime that is carried out by both actions and words. Those words, being part and parcel of the crime, are not protected by the First Amendment. No harasser can claim that they are exercising their First Amendment rights by saying words that are necessarily part of their crime.
If anyone you know in Massachusetts is being stalked or harassed, make sure they, the police and their prosecutor understand that this ruling might help them get their harasser convicted.
More information about this case is available here.