Jim Dey: Angry speech or stalking?

Jim Dey: Angry speech or stalking?

When human resource managers get together to tell war stories, they trade hair-raising tales of job applicants like Walter Releford.

To put it mildly, Releford was less than ideal as a candidate for the job of board operator at Chicago radio gospel music station WGRB-AM. He was a country mile from good behavior after the station let him know it had hired someone else.

"You got till Friday at 5 p.m. to find some type of job for me. ... If you don't, Saturday is going to be the worst day of your life," Releford wrote in one of a series of posts on his Facebook page.

That was one of the less offensive statements Releford made, and his words, naturally, concerned station employees, including one woman to whom Releford took a particular shine.

He also started to show up in and around the station and sent emails to station employees.

Station managers called the police, who arrested Releford. He was charged with stalking, convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

Case closed? Hardly.

The Illinois Supreme Court recently overturned Releford's stalking conviction, but not just because he never issued a credible threat of violence. The court held that the sections of Illinois' stalking law under which Releford was prosecuted are unconstitutionally vague.

How vague? To the point that going to a city council meeting to complain angrily about a municipal issue would violate the state's stalking law, as it was written.

Justice Charles Freeman, writing for a unanimous seven-member court, noted that the statute under which Releford was prosecuted would also "prohibit a person from attending town meetings at which he or she repeatedly complains about pollution caused by a local business owner and advocates for a boycott of the business."

As a consequence, the high court struck down two sub-sections of the state's stalking law because they are "unconstitutionally overbroad."

The court's decision demonstrates once again how negligent and ignorant state legislators can be when they focus on one problem — stalking — and then try to criminalize any similar conduct that might make one person fearful of or uncomfortable in the presence of another.

Stalking, like many other kinds of unusual crimes, has become an increasingly high-profile issue over the years.

That's why Illinois passed its first stalking law in 1992, one that defined the offense as requiring an "intentional threat of a violent crime plus multiple acts or following or surveillance" as part of the accused's modus operandi.

In 2010, no doubt under pressure from victim-rights groups, legislators revisited the issue and eliminated the requirement that the alleged stalker actually threaten his victim.

The Legislature instead defined stalking as "a course of conduct directed" at a specific person that causes the target of the conduct to "fear for his safety or the safety of a third person" or "suffer other emotional distress."

That description, of course, covers the waterfront — from real threats and repeated surveillance to a heated conversation about anything that makes someone apprehensive or upset.

Look at what the Legislature criminalized, Freeman noted in his 22-page decision. Going back to the council meeting and the hypothetical complaint about pollution, he set out a circumstance legislators said could be punished with imprisonment.

"Such a (citizen) could be prosecuted if he persists in complaining after being told to stop by the owner of the business and the (citizen) knows or should know that the complaints will cause the business owner to suffer emotional distress due to the economic impact of the boycott," he wrote.

"The communications described above would be criminal even though they constitute speech in a public forum about a matter of public concern, a quintessential example of the type of speech that is protected by the First Amendment (of the U.S. Constitution)."

That's no longer the case. The high court struck down the objectionable provision of the stalking law, and the attorney general's office said it would ask the General Assembly to revisit the issue with new legislation and, if common sense applies, do so with a little more thought and care about what should, and should not be, criminalized.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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