There is a horrific story out of Michigan where a couple, Scott and Jennifer Petkov, are accused of a cruel campaign targeting a seven-year-old girl, Kathleen Edwards who is dying from Huntington’s disease. The Petkov’s allegedly posted pictures showing Kathleen’s mother (Laura Edwards, who died of the disease last year at the age of 24) in the arms of the grim reaper and photo shopped a picture of Kathleen with her face above a set of crossed bones. The story (which has gone viral internationally) raises questions over the possible civil and criminal liability for such actions.
Reports allege that the Petkovs began a campaign of harassment after they asked if their children could come over to a birthday party for Kathleen. When there was no immediate response, according to the Rose family, the Petkovs turned nasty and started saying horrible things about the dying girl.
In addition to the pictures, the Petkovs allegedly drove their truck named the “Death Machine” up and down their street honking their horn. They later left the truck festooned with coffins in front of the Rose house (though they insisted it is just a Halloween decoration).
Witnesses say that the couple routinely laughed at Laura and her daughter for the neurological disease that causes involuntary writhing movements.
One of most upsetting statements attributed to the Petkovs was their telling Kathleen directly “I can’t wait until you die.” Jennifer Petkov is quoted as admitting that she continued the campaign for “personal satisfaction” and “because it burns Rebecca Rose’s ass raw.” Rebecca Rose is the mother of Laura and grandmother of Kathleen.
Kathleen’s father reportedly begged the Petkovs to stop, asking them ” ‘Just leave us alone; that’s all we want. Don’t make any more comments about our daughter.”
Scott Petkov and his wife have now apologized. Scott Petkov described how his wife’s “brutal honesty” has caused his family to “not get along with a lot of people.” For her part, she now admits “What I did was ignorant and wrong.” Scott Petkov said that, after they posted the pictures on Facebook, he was suspended with pay from his job as a forklift repairman.
They cannot apologize in person because at the height of the harassment, the Rose secured a restraining order against them.
Here is Jennifer Petkov before she decided contrition as opposed to taunting was the proper response to public outrage:
The question is what criminal or civil liability the Petkovs could face. They have a constitutional right to be horrible people. However, their first amendment rights are limited in cases of harassment, stalking, and other crimes. The most obvious criminal charge would be any violation of the restraining order. Such orders generally do not include limitations on speech such as Facebook sites and public statements. The truck could be an issue if parked within the protected zone. I do not believe Michigan has a cyber-bullying statute. What I am unclear about is why the police did not pursue this as a child abuse case, if it is true that the Petkovs confronted the little girl. If that account is false, there remains the campaign directly against the little girl as a possible abuse or stalking case.
The most obvious course for the Rose family would be a civil lawsuit for intentional infliction of emotional distress. There is probably not an action for privacy violations here, such as intrusion upon seclusion or public disclosure of embarrassing private acts. Likewise, words alone are generally insufficient for assault. However, what is fascinating about the case is Jennifer Petkov’s admission that she wanted to harm the Rose family in taking these actions.
In the end, either criminal or civil claims run into the first amendment and the right of the Petkovs to say despicable things, even allegedly to and about a dying seven-year-old girl. This is strikingly similar to the claims in the pending Westboro case before the Supreme Court. Indeed, this drama was unfolding in Michigan at the very time that the justices were hearing arguments on the right of an extremist and homophobic church to say hateful things at funerals for fallen soldiers. I believe that the Westboro Church does have first amendment rights guaranteeing such protests as a general principle. The Westboro church appears to have complied with orders to confine their protest to a certain area that was separated from the family’s church and funeral functions.
The Petkov case could be different if they crossed the line in harassing this child and confronting the family directly. While Jennifer Petkov has been called “the Devil on Detroit Street” the devil will be in the details in whether she would be able to cloak herself in the first amendment to protect her hateful speech. We simply need to confirm the specific acts in the case to determine the viability of criminal or tort liability in the case.
Source: Daily Mail