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Court to rule on freedom of political speech in Massachusetts

October 12, 2015

petervickery

Should politicians be allowed to use the harassment-prevention laws to silence their opponents? That is one way to frame the question that the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) will consider in December. Here is the way the SJC frames the political-speech question presented by Van Liew v. Stansfield:

Whether statements made by the plaintiff, allegedly in the context of “political discourse,” could have qualified as acts of harassment for purposes of G. L. c. 258E; whether a request by the defendant, an elected official, for a harassment prevention order under c. 258E “was devoid of any reasonable factual support or any arguable basis in law” for purposes of the anti-SLAPP statute, G. L. c. 231, § 59H, where the plaintiff’s statements on which the request was based allegedly were “political speech” and made to express the plaintiff’s “version of what was happening in the town.”

In a nutshell, during a municipal election campaign in Chelmsford one local politician (Stansfield) obtained a court order banning another local politician (Van Liew) from using Stansfield’s name “in any email, blog, twitter, or any document through the internet, television show, ad, or otherwise.” In an ex parte hearing (i.e. without the opposing party) Stansfield alleged that Van Liew’s conduct amounted to harassment under M.G.L. c. 258E. The court later decided not to extend the order. Van Liew then sued Stansfield for malicious prosecution and abuse of process. After the district court dismissed his complaint and the appellate division re-instated it, the matter ended up on docket of the commonwealth’s high court.

Given the case’s implications for freedom of speech, it is not surprising that the SJC has requested amicus briefs. But with oral arguments scheduled for December, there is very little time for interested parties to weigh in.

If you would like to see and hear the litigants, click here for Ms. Stansfield (from minute 12:25) and here for Mr. Van Liew (from minute 19:40).

chelmsford PB with caption

Colleen Stansfield: seated, left

roland van liew

Roland Van Liew

The question before the court is whether the statements that Mr. Van Liew made to Ms. Stansfield could constitute harassment, which the statute (chapter 258E) defines as “three or more acts of willful and malicious conduct aimed at a specific person committed with the intent to cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property and that does in fact cause fear, intimidation, abuse or damage to property.”  I shall write more on that question in a later post. In the meantime, an equally important question is one that the SJC has not articulated in its request for amicus briefs, namely whether  a judge issuing a harassment-prevention order should engage in such sweeping prior restraint as the judge in this case.

At Ms. Stansfield’s request, the judge prohibited Mr. Van Liew from using Ms. Stansfield’s name in any TV appearance, advertisement, email, blog, or tweet. Because of this, according to his brief, Mr. Van Liew cancelled a Meet the Candidate show that had been going to run online and on TV.  By way of the anti-harassment law Ms. Stansfield achieved a result that she probably could not have obtained via defamation law.

If Ms. Stansfield had been suing Mr. Van Liew for libel, and sought a preliminary injunction to prevent Mr. Van Liew from publishing further defamatory statements about her, I suspect the judge would have looked at her request through First Amendment lenses and denied the request.

So I have a question, particularly for any of my Legislative Drafting students who are reading this: Is this something best left to the discretion of a trial judge, or should the Legislature amend chapter 258E to make clear that it must not be used to chill freedom of speech? If you think a legislative fix is necessary, what would your proposed amendment say?

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