Harassment and the First Amendment

As an American, you may have a right to annoy.

A person commits harassment when, with intent to intimidate, annoy, or alarm another person, the person [. . .] ommunicates with another by telephone, telegraph, writing, or via electronic communication without legitimate purpose and in a manner likely to cause the other person annoyance or harm. - Iowa Code 708.7(1)(a)(1)

Iowa's harassment law makes it a crime to send someone an annoying message if you intend to annoy them.

Some messages -- the ones likely to annoy people -- are crimes. Messages that aren't annoying aren't crimes. Therefore, Iowa's harassment statute is "content-based."

When legislators write content-based laws, those laws are presumptively tunconstitutional.

The Iowa Supreme Court has said that because speech has to be "without legitimate purpose" to be harassment, the law has a "constitutional safety valve" and is okay.

"Without legitimate purpose" isn't very clear, though, and nor is "in a manner to cause [. . . ] annoyance." When ordinary people don't understand exactly they aren't allowed to do, a law might be found unconstitutional for vagueness.

Speech "without a legitimate purpose" is also not a kind of speech that doesn't have First Amendment protections.

Since when does the government decide whether your purpose in speaking is "legitimate?"

Lawmakers can't invent new kinds of unprotected speech. Annoying speech without "legitimate" purpose is still protected.

Using speech to cause emotions like "annoyance" isn't something the government usually has the power to prohibit.

Not surprisingly, there are a lot of considerations that go into a Court's determination of whether or not a law is constitutional.

Whether or not Iowa's harassment statute infringes on First Amendment protections has come up before and Iowa does not agree with me.

The First Amendment means that the government usually can't censor speech because of the message of the speech. There are exceptions, though.

This blog post is for informational/argumentative purposes only and should not be relied on as legal advice. Consult with a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction to discuss possible defenses to your harassment charge.