One-to-One Speech vs. One-to-Many Speech, Criminal Harassment Laws, and “Cyberstalking”

Volokh, Eugene | January 1, 2013

Until recently, criminal “harassment” usually referred to telephone harassment—unwanted communications to a particular person. Likewise, stalking laws were originally created to deal with people who were physically following a person or trying to talk to that person. The same has historically been true with regard to restraining orders. But in recent years, these laws have been increasingly reworded or interpreted in ways that also cover speech about a person, even when that speech is communicated to potentially willing listeners. The law is in effect returning to an era when criminal libel laws could impose liability not just for falsehoods, but also for true statements or opinions that were supposedly not said with “good motives.” This Article will argue that this approach is unconstitutional when applied to speech said about the target rather than just to the target, at least when the speech is outside the traditional First Amendment exceptions (chiefly threats and “fighting words,” plus perhaps libel). Courts should therefore reject the application of these laws to such one-to-many speech, and legislatures should resist the broadening of such laws.