Free Speech

"Woman Who Criticized … Nursing Home Official on Facebook Faces Jail Time" Case: Dismissed on Procedural Grounds

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The Criscione case, which I wrote about here, has been dismissed on procedural grounds; Cleveland.com (Cory Shaffer) reports:

Magistrate Chris Greene found that neither a police officer nor Brook Park city prosecutor Peter Sackett signed the complaints that originally charged 64-year-old Gina Criscione with misdemeanor telecommunications harassment and menacing by stalking, and the complaints were therefore defective.

Greene dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning that Sackett is free to refile the charges if he chooses. Greene wrote in a three-page opinion announcing his decision that he dismissed the case without prejudice because he "firmly believes that cases should, in the interest of justice, be decided on their merits and not by procedural issues."

Given the huge First Amendment problems with the prosecution, I think prosecutors might use this decision as an opportunity to let the case go, but who knows? Here again is the Summary of Argument from our amicus brief in the case (thanks again to our local counsel Jeffrey M. Nye), which lays out some of the constitutional issues:

[1.] The telecommunications harassment statute and menacing by stalking statute are unconstitutionally overbroad:

  • The telecommunications harassment statute bars knowingly posting anything "on an internet … web page for the purpose of abusing, threatening, or harassing another person," R.C. 2917.21(B)(2)—criminalizing any online statement that is seen as being ill-intentioned.
  • The menacing by stalking statute bars people from making multiple posts online if they know that their pattern of conduct would cause another "mental distress" (or, possibly, would cause another to believe that future conduct will cause mental distress), R.C. 2903.211(A)(1)-(2).

These statutes criminalize a substantial amount of protected speech, including speech on matters of public concern. They could, for instance, expose a person to criminal liability for repeatedly ridiculing a local community leader based on a political position the leader has taken—though such a prosecution would violate the First Amendment, see Rynearson v. Ferguson, 355 F.Supp.3d 964, 972 (W.D. Wash. 2019). Moreover, even speech on matters of private concern is protected by the First Amendment. See Bey v. Rasawehr, __ N.E.3d __, 2020-Ohio-3301, ¶ 59.

Unlike traditional telephone harassment statutes, these statutes are not limited to unwanted speech said to an unwilling listener—speech that can in some situations be properly restricted, regardless of its subject matter. Rather, they extend even to critical public expression of opinions or true statements of fact about a person, which is generally constitutionally protected.

[2.] The statutes are not saved by their mens rea requirements. Even if speakers are "motivated by hatred or ill-will," their speech on matters of public concern is still protected by the First Amendment. Bey, 2020-Ohio-3301, ¶ 59. And Bey makes clear that the same is true of speech on matters of private concern. Id. There is no First Amendment exception for discomforting or upsetting speech made to the public, even if the speech is made with bad intent or with knowledge that some will find it disturbing.

[3.] The telecommunications harassment and menacing by stalking statutes are thus facially unconstitutional—but they are also unconstitutional as applied as well. Ms. Criscione spoke publicly on her personal social media page and while picketing on a public sidewalk. She criticized a healthcare organization and its employees for what she perceived as poor job performance. Statements regarding the "quality of … medical care" involve "a public issue of community concern." Mucci v. Dayton Newspapers, Inc., 71 Ohio Misc. 2d 71, 75, 654 N.E.2d 1068 (Ct. Com. Pl. 1995). Yet Ms. Criscione is being prosecuted for her statements anyway.

[4.]  Since these statutes criminalize speech based on its content, they are unconstitutional unless they pass strict scrutiny. This they cannot do. Even if there is a compelling governmental interest in protecting people from abuse, harassment, and mental distress, barring a broad range of public criticism cannot be narrowly tailored to serve that interest. See Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. 443, 458-59, 131 S.Ct. 1207, 179 L.Ed.2d 172 (2011) (holding that even outrageous speech that causes emotional distress is still constitutionally protected).

East Park and its employees might prevail in a defamation lawsuit against Ms. Criscione, if they can prove that her allegations are false. But Ohio cannot constitutionally prosecute Ms. Criscione for such criticism under the state's tele­communica­tions harassment and menacing by stalking statutes, which require no showing of libelous falsehood. These charges should therefore be dismissed.