The Livingston County (Mich.) Sheriff’s Office is seeking criminal charges against a Howell woman who posted nasty attacks on Twitter to criticize recent public meeting comments by anti-maskers. Kasey Helton seems an entirely unhinged and uncivil person. However, as will come as no surprise to regulars on this blog, I do not see the basis for such a criminal referral, which creates a chilling effect on free speech.
Helton posted juvenile and insulting tweets about a purported nurse who complained of E. coli on masks: “Nurse E.Coli b/c she’s full of” followed by the poop emoji. She also tagged St. Joseph’s Health, saying “I believe she’s on your staff?” She added attacks like a “dangerous RN sponsored by Schoolcraft College” a “pathetic purveyor of health misinformation.” The posted videos include one from a Brighton Board of Education meeting in which a woman claiming to be a nurse calls masks ineffective and “a restriction of one’s breathing.”
Helton is the face of our age of rage. However, Sheriff Mike Murphy decided to refer the matter for criminal charges under MCL 750.411s, which states the elements of the offense as:
“(a) The person knows or has reason to know that posting the message could cause 2 or more separate noncontinuous acts of unconsented contact with the victim.
(b) Posting the message is intended to cause conduct that would make the victim feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested.
(c) Conduct arising from posting the message would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress and to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested.
(d) Conduct arising from posting the message causes the victim to suffer emotional distress and to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested.”
All four criteria must be met.
The referral shows how such ambiguous statutes undermine free speech. Much of the speech on the Internet can make people feel subjectively “intimidated,” “harassed,” or “molested.” Just being shown on such postings can cause “contacts” or harassment.
Sheriff Murphy seemed to acknowledge that he is pushing the legal envelope on this referral but said that he has lost his patience:
“We have done our share of these, trying to get some clear understanding of the line for criminal charges vs free speech. I am not going to waste a lot of time and resources if these aren’t going anywhere. But it seems the ante keeps getting up’ed with the hatred in social media posts..
… At the end of the day this will give us insight into the appetite of the prosecutor’s office on these issues. If they don’t end up issuing charges, we can say to future complainants that we won’t waste the time.”
Free speech should not have to depend upon “the appetite of the prosecutor’s office” or the patience of police chiefs. I have little sympathy for people like Helton who vent their anger on social media in this way. However, she is the price of free speech. I would rather have her angry diatribes than the criminalization of speech.