The criminal defense lawyer William Kunstler used to say, “This is New York and there’s no law against being annoying.”
On Tuesday, the state’s highest court appeared to agree, striking down a statute that made it a felony to communicate with someone “in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm.”
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The case involved Raphael Golb, a 54-year-old Greenwich Village resident who waged a yearslong campaign against the academic rivals of his father, Norman Golb, a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar. Using dozens of pseudonyms, the younger Mr. Golb accused the rivals of ignoring or plagiarizing his father’s work to further their own careers. For added effect, he opened email accounts in the names of some of his antagonists, and wrote messages appearing to confess to wronging Norman Golb.
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In striking down the statute on aggravated harassment dealing with speech that was merely annoying or alarming, the judges unanimously ruled that the law was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad. They cited another court’s ruling that “any proscription of pure speech must be sharply limited to words which, by their utterance alone, inflict injury or tend naturally to evoke immediate violence.” Mere annoying speech, the lingua franca of many New Yorkers, was not enough.The New York Court of Appeals took a similar approach to the Indiana Court of Appeals, which also took issue with the term "annoying." As I posted here, in February, the Indiana Court of Appeals struck down a law prohibiting people from harassing or annoying people while drunk in public.
The term "annoy" is a dangerous word to put in a statute, since it is likely to raise vagueness challenges. Whether something is "annoying" is a very subjective question, and this can give a dangerous amount of discretion to those charged with enforcing the law.
Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan District Attorney, criticizes this opinion for striking down an important component of anti-harassment laws. While the impact may have a wide-reaching impact -- especially if statutes are drafted in a repetitive manner -- I think that the court's decision was correct, and that legislators should generally avoid vague terms like "annoying" when they are drafting harassment statutes.