Not criminal harassment to publish rude flyers
State v. Burkert (A-6-16)
This case tests the limits to which a broadly worded harassment statute, N.J.S.A. 2C: 33-4(c), can criminalize speech.
William Burkert and Gerald Halton were corrections officers, who held positions in different unions representing distinct classes of officers. Their relationship became particularly strained after Burkert read online comments attributed to Halton’s wife that Burkert felt insulted him and his family. Angered by the insulting online comments, Burkert retaliated. Burkert downloaded the Haltons’ wedding photograph. He then copied the photograph and made two flyers, writing lewd dialogue in speech bubbles over the faces of the bride and groom.
Burkert admitted that he had prepared the flyers but denied circulating them. Burkert explained that he expressed himself through the flyers rather than “get physical with the guy.”
The municipal court entered a guilty verdict against Burkert for harassing Halton on January 8 and 11 in violation of N.J.S.A. 2C: 33-4(c). The court found that Burkert made and circulated the flyers in the garage and locker room, that the bubble dialogue inscribed on the Haltons’ wedding photograph was “lewd and obnoxious,” and that such language would “seriously annoy any person, in this case Mr. Halton.” In a de novo trial before the Law Division, the court found Burkert guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of committing acts of harassment.
HELD: To ensure that N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(c) does not exceed its constitutional reach in cases involving the prosecution of pure speech, repeated acts to “alarm” and “seriously annoy” must be read as encompassing only repeated communications directed at a person that reasonably put that person in fear for his safety or security or that intolerably interferes with that person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.
1. N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4 distinguishes between “communications” and “language” that violate the statute in subsection (a), and “conduct” and “acts” that do so in subsection (c). Although a “course of alarming conduct” or “repeatedly committed acts” can occur through communications and language alone, it is far from clear that the Legislature had in mind offensive speech as the object of N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(c). That the primary thrust of N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(c) is not to interdict speech, but rather conduct, is reinforced in State v. Hoffman, 149 N.J. 564 (1997).
2. Criminal laws touching on speech must give fair notice of where the line is set between what is permissible and proscribed and must be drawn with appropriate definiteness. A court can invalidate a statute that is substantially overbroad on its face if the statute reaches a substantial amount of constitutionally protected conduct. Such a drastic remedy, however, is not the only—and not even the preferred—approach. Provided that a statute is reasonably susceptible to an interpretation that will render it constitutional, courts must construe the statute to conform to the Constitution.
3. The vaguely and broadly worded standard in N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(c) does not put a reasonable person on sufficient notice of the kinds of speech that the statute proscribes. The statute’s vagueness also gives prosecuting authorities undue discretion to bring charges related to permissive expressive activities. That, in turn, means that the statute—if not more narrowly defined—has the capacity to chill permissible speech. Under N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(c), a person who, with the purpose to seriously annoy another, does seriously annoy another is guilty of harassment. Speech, however, cannot be transformed into criminal conduct merely because it annoys, disturbs, or arouses contempt. The First Amendment protects offensive discourse, hateful ideas, and crude language because freedom of expression needs breathing room and in the long run leads to a more enlightened society. Outside of the category of obscenity, courts should not play the role of censor by engaging in a weighing of an expression’s value or relative social costs and benefits. Speech cannot be criminalized merely because others see no value in it. Nonetheless, neither the First Amendment nor Article I, Paragraph 6 of our State Constitution prohibits the State from criminalizing certain limited categories of speech, such as speech that is integral to criminal conduct, speech that physically threatens or terrorizes another, or speech that is intended to incite imminent unlawful conduct. The First Amendment also does not bar states from enacting laws that punish expressive activity when substantial privacy interests are being invaded in an essentially intolerable manner.
4. N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4 provides: “[A] person commits a petty disorderly persons offense if, with purpose to harass another, he: . . . (c) Engages in any other course of alarming conduct or of repeatedly committed acts with purpose to alarm or seriously annoy such other person.” In cases based on pure expressive activity, the amorphous terms “alarming conduct” and “acts with purpose to alarm or seriously annoy” must be defined in more concrete terms consonant with the dictates of the free-speech clauses of our Federal and State Constitutions. Narrowly reading the terms alarm and annoy will save the statute from constitutional infirmity. Therefore, for constitutional reasons, the Court will construe the terms “any other course of alarming conduct” and “acts with purpose to alarm or seriously annoy” as repeated communications directed at a person that reasonably put that person in fear for his safety or security or that intolerably interfere with that person’s reasonable expectation of privacy. That standard applies only in those cases where the alleged harassing conduct is based on pure expressive activity.
5. The prosecution in this case targeted purely expressive activity and therefore the Court applies the heightened standard of subsection (c) set forth above. Neither the municipal court nor Law Division judge who sat in this case had the benefit of the standard developed in this opinion. They applied the statute as written. Although in other circumstances a remand might be appropriate, the Court sees no point here because even the most indulgent view of the record favoring the State would not support a harassment conviction under N.J.S.A. 2C: 33-4(c).