We recently discussed people arrested after trying to fuel racial unrest by posing as members of groups on the left and right. Now an East Carolina University student has been arrested after he allegedly sent a fake racist party invitation to a rush event hosted by a rival fraternity, Theta Chi. James Edwards, 19, is the the vice president of recruitment for Pi Lambda Phi. Edwards is African American but his motivations are not clear in perpetuating this hoax. What is legally notable about the case is the criminal charge: cyberstalking.
The police allege that Edwards posted an invite on Yik Yak declaring “Theta Chi rush party. PNMs (potential new members) and girls only. No blacks. Girls 5$ @door. Call or text.”
Edwards is also a political science major at ECU.
The charge of cyberstalking was notable since he did not allegedly target any individual. However, he was targeting a group, Theta Chi.
I do not have the charging sheet but only one cyberstalking provision came up on a search. The North Carolina cyberstalking law states in pertinent part:
It is unlawful for a person to:
(1) Use in electronic mail or electronic communication any words or language threatening to inflict bodily harm to any person or to that person’s child, sibling, spouse, or dependent, or physical injury to the property of any person, or for the purpose of extorting money or other things of value from any person.
(2) Electronically mail or electronically communicate to another repeatedly, whether or not conversation ensues, for the purpose of abusing, annoying, threatening, terrifying, harassing, or embarrassing any person.
(3) Electronically mail or electronically communicate to another and to knowingly make any false statement concerning death, injury, illness, disfigurement, indecent conduct, or criminal conduct of the person electronically mailed or of any member of the person’s family or household with the intent to abuse, annoy, threaten, terrify, harass, or embarrass.
(4) Knowingly permit an electronic communication device under the person’s control to be used for any purpose prohibited by this section.
(5) Knowingly install, place, or use an electronic tracking device without consent, or cause an electronic tracking device to be installed, placed, or used without consent, to track the location of any person…
I admit that I often look at these controversies from the bias of a criminal defense attorney but this law refers to targeting “a person” and “repeatedly” communicating “for the purpose of abusing, annoying, threatening, terrifying, harassing, or embarrassing any person.” There is no question that this is meant to harass or embarrass, but the “repeatedly” element is curious. Even if “a person” includes a group, the allegation is a posting on Yik Yak. Does a single posting on social media constitute a de facto repeated message?
The law also states in section (e) that “This section does not apply to any peaceable, nonviolent, or nonthreatening activity intended to express political views or to provide lawful information to others.” This is nonviolent but the list of exempted motives are all qualified by “intended to express political views or to provide lawful information to others.” This does not appear intended for a political purpose or providing such lawful information.
However, the limited exemption takes you back to the original element. This was an alleged hoax. Does the motive not matter? What if it was meant as an extremely poor joke? Sometimes stupid and thoughtless jokes are meant to embarrass. This student may claim that he was not trying to create racial unrest but was simply playing a prank on an opposing fraternity. Should that matter?
Again, I may be parsing the words too closely, but this seems a bit of a stretch on the elements. The other question is why something like this cannot be handled by the university as opposed to creating a criminal case. Suspension or expulsion would seem a pretty hefty penalty. While this crime is just a misdemeanor, this type of offense used to be addressed internally by universities rather than shift the matter over to the criminal justice system.