God help us if all politics are local

Van Liew v. Stansfield, No. SJC-1906 (Mass. Mar. 30, 2016).

Roland Van Liew was running to be a selectman for Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Colleen Stansfield, a member of the local planning board, decided to attend a Van Liew campaign event at the town library. This may not have been the greatest idea, since Van Liew was Stansfield’s sworn enemy. Once, Van Liew had called Stansfield up and called her uneducated and stupid. He had sent out mailings labeling her a corrupt liar, a charge he had repeated during a recent recall election. Now, at the library event, Stansfield approached Van Liew. There ensued an argument that ended with Van Liew yelling, “You sent an anonymous letter to my wife and I’m coming after you.” 

Stansfield sought and was granted an ex parte anti-harassment order against Van Liew. The order required Van Liew not to harass or contact Stansfield—and not even to write emails, or blog, or disseminate any document about her, which seems obviously unconstitutional. Two weeks later, at a full hearing that Van Liew attended, the court found no harassment and vacated the order. 

Van Liew then filed this lawsuit, which alleges that Stansfield had no basis for filing an anti-harassment suit against him and asserts claims for malicious prosecution and abuse of process. Stansfield moved to dismiss the complaint under Massachusetts’ anti-SLAPP law, and the trial court granted her motion.

But the trial court should have granted Stansfield’s anti-SLAPP motion only if Van Liew has failed to show that Stansfield’s anti-harassment lawsuit lacked any arguable merit. And this question, in turn, depends on whether Stansfield could reasonably have thought that Van Liew had “harassed” her under Massachusetts law. 

Because of First Amendment concerns, Massachusetts courts have limited harassment-by-words to two categories only. First, there are fighting words, direct personal insults that’ll probably cause a fight: some guy at a bar comments on your mother’s sexual proclivities. Second, there are true threats, which are direct or not-so-veiled threats of imminent physical harm: “That’s a nice store you have; it’d be terrible if something happened to it.” To commit harassment under Massachusetts law, you have to commit three or more discrete acts of harassment. 

Even if the encounter in the library counted as harassment, nothing else Van Liew did remotely qualified as either fighting words or a true threat. Because he did not commit three acts of harassment, Stansfield’s anti-harassment lawsuit lacked all merit, and the Supreme Judicial Court rules that the trial court should have denied the anti-SLAPP motion.