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Texas Appeals Court Denies Constitutional Challenge to “Online Impersonation” Statute in Manhunt.net Case

Posted on: September 1st, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

Who knew? It is potentially a crime in Texas, and apparently several other states, to pose as somebody else on social media sites like Manhunt.net, and this does not violate anybody’s 1st Amendment rights, held a panel of the Texas 5th District Court of Appeals in Ex parte Bradshaw, 2016 Tex. App. LEXIS 9203, 2016 WL 4443714 (Aug. 23, 2016).

According to the opinion by Justice Robert M. Fillmore, Michael Dwain Bradshaw has been charged with violating Texas Penal Code Sec. 33.07(a), titled “Online Impersonation.” The statute provides that a person “commits an offense if the person, without obtaining the other person’s consent and with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, or threaten any person, uses the name or persona of another person to (1) create a web page on a commercial social networking site or other Internet website; or (2) post or send one or more messages on or through a commercial social networking site or other Internet website, other than on or through an electronic mail program or message board program.” The indictment charges Bradshaw with “intentionally or knowingly using Joel Martin’s name or persona to post or send one or more messages on or though manhunt.net, an Internet website, without obtaining Martin’s consent, and with the intent to harm Martin.”  Justice Fillmore does not get any more specific about the factual allegations against Bradshaw, devoting the entire balance of the opinion to rejecting his constitutional claims.  Bradshaw, represented by attorneys Mark W. Bennett and Toby L. Shook, filed a pretrial application for writ of habeas corpus, seeking to get the indictment quashed on the ground that the statute is facially unconstitutional.  A Dallas County Criminal Court judge denied the petition, and Bradshaw appealed to the 5th District court.

Bradshaw’s first argument was unconstitutional overbreadth, claiming that as worded the statute has the effect of “restricting a substantial amount of protected speech based on the content of the speech.” The state argued that the statute regulates only conduct and unprotected speech, and that any incidental effect on protected speech “is marginal when weighed against the plainly legitimate sweep of the statute.”  Justice Fillmore noted Supreme Court precedents describing the overbreadth doctrine as “strong medicine that is used sparingly and only as a last resort,” reserved for statutes presenting a “realistic” danger of inhibiting constitutionally protected speech.  The level of judicial scrutiny in such cases depends on whether the statute is content-based – that is, coverage triggered by the substance of the speech involved.  The court concluded that the “vast majority” of speech covered by the statute is not protected by the 1st Amendment, and agreed with the state’s argument that the statute is mainly about regulating conduct.

“Impersonation is a nature-of-conduct offense,” wrote Fillmore, which “does not implicate the First Amendment unless the conduct qualifies as ‘expressive conduct’ akin to speech.” Bradshaw contended that “using another’s name or persona to create a webpage, post a message, send a message” is inherently expressive conduct, but the court did not buy this argument, finding that the focus of the statute was on how somebody used another’s name or image: “Any subsequent ‘speech’ related to that conduct is integral to criminal conduct and may be prevented and punished without violating the First Amendment,” wrote Fillmore. As such, the level of judicial review of the statute would not be strict scrutiny – reserved for content-based speech restrictions – but rather “intermediate review” requiring the government to show that the statute advances a significant state interest.  Contrary to Bradshaw’s argument, the court found the statute to be content-neutral.  It didn’t matter whose name or persona was being appropriated; it was the fact of appropriation of identity, which the court saw as conduct, that was being punished, and then only if it was being done for purposes specified in the statute.

Looking to the legislative history of the statute, Justice Fillmore found Texas House committee hearings generating a report that the purpose of the statute was “to ‘deter and punish’ individuals who assumed the identity of another and sent false, harassing, or threatening electronic messages to the victim or a third party who was unaware of the perpetrator’s true identity. The committee noted that online harassment had resulted in suicide, threats of physical or mental abuse, and more, but ‘current Texas law does not provide a means of prosecuting some of the most egregious of these acts.  There is nothing in the legislative history,” wrote Fillmore, “that would suggest the legislature was targeting or expressing its disagreement with any particular topic or viewpoint by enacting section 33.07(a).”  And the court concluded that addressing this problem did involve a significant governmental interest of “protecting citizens from crime, fraud, defamation or threats from online impersonation.”

“It also serves a significant First Amendment interest in regulating false and compelled speech on the part of the individual whose identity has been appropriated,” wrote Fillmore, dismissing the “hypotheticals” posed by Bradshaw in his argument as insubstantial “in comparison to the statute’s plainly legitimate sweep over unprotected speech and conduct.”

Bradshaw also attacked the law under the 14th Amendment Due Process Clause as unduly vague, not giving specific enough warning to people about what conduct crossed the line of legality.  In this case, the court found, the legislature had avoided any vagueness problem by including elsewhere in the Texas Penal Code a definition of “harm” generally as “anything reasonably regarded as loss, disadvantage, or injury, including harm to another person in whose welfare the person affected is interested.”  More specifically, Chapter 33 of the Penal Code, which contains the challenged statute, has its own definition of “harm” that includes harm to computer data and “any other loss, disadvantage, or injury that might reasonably be suffered as a result of the actor’s conduct.”  Noting that harm is a word in common use, the court also cited to dictionaries, concluding that a “person of ordinary intelligence” would have “fair notice of what the statute prohibits.”

Finally, Bradshaw contended that Texas could not regulate conduct involving the internet because this “unduly burdens interstate commerce by attempting to place regulations on Internet users everywhere,” invoking a legal doctrine called the Dormant Commerce Clause. Fillmore rejected the contention that the Texas law burdens interstate commerce.  “Evenhanded local regulation intended to effectuate a legitimate local public interest that has only incidental effects on interstate commerce will be upheld,” he wrote, “unless the burden imposed on such commerce is clearly excessive in relation to the putative local benefits.”  Here, he observed, the court had found that Texas has a significant interest in protecting its citizens.  “It is difficult to envision how interstate commerce is benefitted by the conduct proscribed by section 33.07(a),” wrote Fillmore, “and we believe the burden of the statute on interstate commerce is small.”  Thus, the writ was denied and the prosecution can proceed.

Which leads the reader to speculate about the facts of this case. Did Bradshaw use Martin’s picture or name to cruise on Manhunt.net, to lure people into compromising situations, or to engage in conduct that would damage Martin’s reputation or subject him to liability or prosecution if attributed to him?  If this case goes to trial and produces written opinions or attracts media attention, perhaps we will find out.  If, as is true in the overwhelming majority of criminal prosecutions, Bradshaw accepts a plea bargain offered by the prosecution, we may never find out.