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Utah Court of Appeals upholds electronic harassment law

Internet Outage-East Coast phone Facebook
Posted at 11:58 AM, Apr 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-04 16:35:47-04

SALT LAKE CITY  — The Utah Court of Appeals has upheld the state's electronic harassment law in a decision that could have implications for future cases of social media messaging.

In a decision published Saturday, the state appeals court ruled against a Lehi man accused of sending dozens of profane messages over Facebook to someone he disagreed with about a development project in 2018.

"Are you such a f—ing b— you don’t want to take the time to drive your children across Kevin bacon’s rail road tracks?" said one message, according to the ruling.

"Perhaps I should contact the first presidency to strip you of all dignity," said another in the series.

"Suck dick [Victim]! Your mom is the mother of a whore."

"[Your wife] will leave you because you are a C—!"

"Your children will hate you!"

"YOU KNOW WHAT . . . . . . . NOW YOU ARE #1 ON MY LIST OF PEOPLE TO DESTROY!"

Eventually, the Court said, Jason Rickabaugh messaged again saying: "Sorry man. I get really drunk and angry about the insane idea that mining in a residential area is ok."

The victim in the case contacted police, who ultimately charged Rickabaugh with class B misdemeanor electronic harassment. Police said he "freely admitted that he had sent them out of a difference of opinion between him and [Victim] regarding . . . the mining efforts or . . . the excavation within Traverse Mountain."

Shortly after Rickabaugh was charged, he challenged Utah's electronic harassment law on constitutional grounds, arguing it was overbroad, vague and infringed on his First Amendment free speech rights. The court rejected it and ultimately, he was convicted by a jury.

Rickabaugh appealed, was granted a trial in district court, raising the same claims.

"Rickabaugh himself testified and admitted that he sent at least thirty messages to Victim via Facebook. Rickabaugh stated that he “wanted to communicate with [Victim] hopefully to get [him] to change his position and show him [Rickabaugh’s] disappointment in . . . [Victim’s] decisions and perhaps to strike [up] a conversation," Utah Court of Appeals Judge Jill Pohlman wrote.

The ruling said the victim blocked Rickabaugh on Facebook, but the victim then was called out on a community page. A jury again convicted him and the case was taken to the state appeals court.

A three judge panel of the Utah Court of Appeals upheld the law, which allows someone to be prosecuted for electronic communications "with intent to intimidate, abuse, threaten, harass, frighten, or disrupt the electronic communications of another" and if someone "makes repeated contact by means of electronic communications, regardless of whether a conversation ensues."

The law also states the messages can be "insults, taunts, or challenges the recipient of the communication or any person at the receiving location in a manner likely to provoke a violent or disorderly response."

In his challenge, the Utah Court of Appeals noted that "Rickabaugh concedes that some of his messages 'were
offensive and likely caused anger and indignation,' but he asserts that offensive words are still protected speech."

The Court rejected Rickabaugh's claims that Utah law is overbroad and vague.

"The statute is directed toward a form of harassment that is 'likely to provoke a violent or disorderly response,' not responses that involve an individual panicking or merely emailing others," Judge Pohlman wrote, concluding that: "We are not persuaded that the electronic communication harassment statute is unconstitutionally overbroad or vague."

Decisions by state appellate level courts can often have implications for other cases, guiding prosecutors on whether to seek criminal charges against others for similar offenses.

Read the entire ruling here (contains explicit language):