Court Limits Ban on Speech That Causes “Substantial Emotional Distress” with “Intent to Harass or Intimdate”
From U.S. v. Yung, decided today by the Third Circuit, in an opinion by Judge Stephanos Bibas, joined by Judges Felipe Restrepo and Jane Roth:
Congress enacted the cyberstalking law in 2006 and broadened it in 2013. As amended, it makes a defendant a cyberstalker if he checks three boxes:
- An act. The defendant must “use the mail, any interactive computer service or electronic communication service or … system …, or any other facility of interstate or foreign commerce” at least twice. 18 U.S.C. § 2261A(2); see also 2266(2).
- An intent. He must have acted “with the intent to kill, injure, harass, intimidate, or place under surveillance with intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate another person.” § 2261A(2).
- A result. Finally, his actions must cause some emotional response. They must either put the target “in reasonable fear of … death … or serious bodily injury,” or “cause[ ], attempt to cause, or … be reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress.” § 2261A(2)(A), (B). Because Yung pleaded guilty to the emotional-distress result element, we focus on that one….
[I]f we can, we must read the statute narrowly enough to avoid constitutional problems. And here, a narrow reading of the statute’s intent element is plausible….
By itself, the act element does not prevent overbreadth…. [W]e reject the government’s position that the cyberstalking “statute focuses on conduct, not speech.” Rather, it reaches a lot of speech: it targets emails, texts, and social media posts ….
The result element does little to confine the law to unprotected speech. The law, for instance, punishes people for acting in a way that “causes, attempts to cause, or would be reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress.” True, the “[s]ubstantial” emotional distress must be “fairly large,” more than mere annoyance.
Even so, the law captures much speech, in part because it does not require that emotional distress be objectively reasonable. Though we hope that Americans can discuss sensitive issues without taking offense, that is not always so. And the law penalizes speech even
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