Lovestruck MySpace teen not guilty of harassment, court says

New York state judge rules that a series of "I love you" and similar messages sent through MySpace don't amount to the crime of aggravated harassment, which prosecutors had claimed.

The annals of history are replete with examples of teenage angst and unrequited love. It took the state of New York to make those a crime.

State prosecutors decided to charge Isaiah Rodriguez, 18, of aggravated harassment and endangering the welfare of a child over a series of MySpace.com messages professing his ardent devotion to a 14-year-old girl.

The messages said, in part: "I love you;" "we need to be together;" I will see you every day;" and "I will never stop trying to talk to you."

That, according to the solons in the New York state attorney general's office, amounts to a violation of Section 240.30 of the state penal code. It says: "A person is guilty of aggravated harassment in the second degree when, with intent to harass, annoy, threaten or alarm another person...causes a communication to be initiated by...electronic means...in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm."

Fortunately, the New York City criminal court thought otherwise. In a ruling on April 4, Judge Michael Gerstein in Brooklyn wrote this, which I've excerpted (thanks to Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman for the tip):

The words "we need to be together;" "I will never stop talking to you;" and "I love you" are not threats, but appear to be merely the symptoms of unrequited love--the same hopeless affection that, among countless others, Dante felt for Beatrice; Don Quixote for Dulcinea; Cyrano for Roxane; Quasimodo for Esmeralda; Young Werner for Lotte; Jay Gatsby for Daisy Buchanan; and that Charlie Brown felt for the Little Red Haired Girl. While these romances do not usually end well for the pursuing party, the People have cited neither statute nor case law that might punish the communication of unrequited love, even if such is undesired.

Teenagers are especially vulnerable to the "madness most discreet" that makes sad hours seem long. Mere pages before he met Juliet, Romeo pined for Rosaline; Adrian Mole longed for Pandora Braithwaite in volume after volume of his "secret diaries;" and Dion implored of the skies up above, "why must I be a teenager in love?" vowing, just a few verses later, that "if you should say goodbye, I'd still go on loving you." When teenagers fall in love, as song lyrics and studies show, they are more likely to exhibit almost manic behaviors, take risks, act compulsively, and sometimes pursue, with reckless abandon, the objects of their affection. While the actions of a love-struck teenager may well be foolish, reckless, or otherwise acts which might not be expected from a mature adult, they are not, without more, elevated to crimes.

The allegations in the Complaint merely establish that Defendant declared his feelings for the Complainant. Conversely, the Complaint is devoid of allegations that the Defendant knew his declarations would be coldly received. The alleged messages that form the basis of the charge of Aggravated Harassment were transmitted through Myspace, a social networking website that allows each user to choose which friends will be part of his or her network. When another Myspace user receives an invitation to be friends, he or she must choose whether or not to communicate with the requesting user. At any time, a Myspace user may remove friends from his or her network, or may block unwanted communications. Thus, while it is reasonable to assume that at some point, Complainant added the Defendant, under his nom de plume"looking 4 the right one in my life," to her list of friends, the Complaint contains no allegations that Complainant attempted to quell Defendant's love by blocking Defendant's messages or by asking him to cease writing her. We therefore find that the Complaint fails to show that the Defendant intended to alarm, threaten or annoy the Defendant.

Although the court didn't go there, another problem is that the state law violates the First Amendment and New York state's constitution. That's because the First Amendment protects even annoying speech--otherwise some overtly political Web sites, let alone sites like Annoy.com, might not even be able to exist.

 

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