Hanging of posters constitutes harassment, verbal threats may not, says Brooklyn judge
Brooklyn Criminal Court Judge Michael Gerstein ruled that an artist’s hanging of posters accusing a fellow artist of child molestation is enough to constitute aggravated harassment while verbal threats may not.
The case began when a group of artists including Harry Stuckey and Christopher Brodeur began the process of renting a collective artists’ space in a Williamsburg loft. Brodeur located the loft and raised the initial payment of $12,000. However, the landlord was not satisfied with Brodeur’s financial status, forcing Brodeur to seek Stuckey’s assistance. Stuckey took the lease for the loft in his company’s name.
Brodeur and Stuckey’s relationship soon soured. and Brodeur, according to court documents, “did repeatedly verbally threaten to kill [Stuckey], ruin [his] business and [his] life… and place[d] a poster on [Stuckey’s] front door that contained [Stuckey’s] name, a hand-drawn picture of [Stuckey] and false accusations about [Stuckey] being a thief, a drug dealer and a child molester.”
Brodeur was found guilty of attempted aggravated harassment, a Class B misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of three months in jail. During the non-jury trial, Brodeur argued that his actions were protected under the United States Constitution’s protection of the freedom of speech.
“The First Amendment of the United States Constitution forbids the silencing of speech merely because it is objectionable or offensive to the listener,” Gerstein noted in agreement. Nevertheless, Gerstein found that Brodeur’s actions constituted a crime and did “not run afoul of the First Amendment.” The poster was placed on Stuckey’s front door — an act, Gerstein reasoned, that caused Brodeur’s actions to transcend protected speech into prohibited action.
New York’s attempted aggravated harassment statute makes it a crime to communicate with another in a manner likely to cause annoyance and harm. In order to be considered a crime, there must be “true threat” such that a reasonable person in a similar situation would interpret the communication as a true threat of injury.
Here, Stuckey noted “he was made alarmed, afraid and annoyed upon seeing the poster on his door.” Because of this, Gerstein ruled that the poster constituted both an “essentially intolerable invasion of [Stuckey’s] zone of privacy,” as well as a true threat.
The verbal threats to kill Stuckey did not however amount to a true threat, according to the judge. Gerstein found that Brodeur’s “propensity for hyperbole and exaggeration” saved him for a true-threat analysis of his verbal utterances.
Simply put, Gerstein did not believe that the prosecutors “prove[d] beyond a reasonable doubt that a reasonable person in Stuckey’s position would have considered Defendant’s words threatening murder to be a true threat.”
Brodeur was acquitted of fourth-degree stalking and second-degree harassment.
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