POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.
The internet’s opportunities for communication can be, and in most cases are, beneficial. But some persons may maliciously utilize such opportunities to expose others to embarrassment, and the harm inflicted can be extremely damaging, especially when such communications expose minors to severe embarrassment relating to sexual matters. Such communications have come to be termed “cyber-bullying.”
With instances of cyber-bullying increasing, public authorities have responded with varying measures, including criminalization, in an effort to curb such communications. But because the communications at issue are speech, their restriction must survive constitutional review under the First Amendment’s free speech clause.
New York State has a prior history of protecting minors against the damaging effects of sexual communications. In New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S.747 (1982), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld, against a Free Speech challenge, a New York statute prohibiting persons from knowingly promoting a sexual performance by a child under the age of 16 by distributing material which depicted such a performance (reversing a decision of the N.Y. Court of Appeals).
On July 1, 2014, by a 5-2 vote the N.Y. Court of Appeals struck down as violating the First Amendment a law against cyber-bullying enacted by the Albany County legislature. On appeal, the County conceded that there was wording in the law that was constitutionally overbroad, but argued that, pursuant to accepted severability practice utilized in constitutional interpretation, the Court could sever the offending words and leave in place the remaining portions of the law as constitutionally valid and thus affirm the misdemeanor conviction of an Albany County high-school student who anonymously posted on Facebook photographs and detailed information about the alleged sexual practices and predilections of his classmates.
Thus, the key issue on appeal was the application of proper judicial employment of the severability doctrine, which allows a court to excise unconstitutional elements of a law in order to preserve constitutionally valid elements that may sustain conviction for the crime charged. While the Court majority acknowledged that some elements of the law’s text could be appropriately severed, other portions could not, without leaving in place other issues potentially raising further First Amendment problems.
Judge Robert Smith, in a dissenting opinion joined by Judge Pigott, stated that, with application of Albany County’s concessions for excision, the law passed constitutional muster. On Judge Smith’s reading of the applicable precedents, the defendant’s “speech designed to inflict serious emotional injury is protected only” if the defendant’s Facebook posting was “directed at a matter of public concern,” which was clearly not present in the case before the Court.