| ALBANY, N.Y., July 1
ALBANY, N.Y., July 1 New York's highest court
said on Tuesday that a law designed to criminalize cyberbullying
was so broad that it violated the First Amendment, marking the
first time a U.S. court weighed the constitutionality of such a
The 2011 Albany County law banned electronic communication
intended to "harass, annoy, threaten...or otherwise inflict
significant emotional harm on another person."
The law was challenged on First Amendment grounds by Marquan
Mackey-Meggs, who at age 15 in 2011 pleaded guilty under the law
to creating a Facebook page that included graphic sexual
comments alongside photos of classmates at his Albany-area high
The Court of Appeals in a 5-2 decision said it was possible
to pass a law outlawing bullying via social media or text
message that respected free speech rights, but the county's
statute went too far.
"It appears that the provision would criminalize a broad
spectrum of speech outside the popular understanding of
cyberbullying," Judge Victoria Graffeo wrote for the court,
"including, for example, an email disclosing private information
about a corporation or a telephone conversation meant to annoy
The majority rejected a bid by the county to sever the
provisions that violated free speech rights and leave the rest
of the law intact.
In dissent, Judge Robert Smith said the law could have been
saved by applying it only to children and deleting certain vague
terms, such as "hate mail."
The decision reversed a lower court, which dismissed the
free speech claims.
Mackey-Meggs did not appeal his conviction but pressed
forward with the First Amendment challenge. Since the court on
Tuesday overturned the law, however, the indictment against
Mackey-Meggs was also struck down.
Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said in a statement
that he was disappointed with the decision and would work with
county lawmakers "to craft a (new) law that both protects free
speech and keep kids safe."
Officials at the New York Civil Liberties Union, which
represented Mackey-Meggs, did not immediately return a request
More than a dozen states, including Maryland, Washington and
Louisiana, have adopted criminal sanctions for cyberbullying,
according to the non-profit Cyberbullying Research Center.
Lawmakers in New York and a handful of other states are
considering similar laws.
Justin Patchin, a co-chair of the research center and a
professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said that
he was encouraged that the court said cyberbullying laws were
not automatically unconstitutional.
"The problem is, it's going to be really tricky to write a
law that is comprehensive in its coverage of bullying and at the
same time passes constitutional muster," he said.
The case is the People v. Marquan M., New York State Court
of Appeals No. 139.
(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner; Editing by Ted Botha and