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Unlawful Communications

Spoken or written words tending to intimidate, menace, or harm others.

The guarantee of FREEDOM OF SPEECH in the FIRST AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution is not absolute. Many state and federal criminal laws prohibit persons from making threats and other unlawful communications. In addition, a person who makes unlawful communications may be sued in a civil tort action for damages resulting from the threats or communications.

It is unlawful to threaten a person with the intent to obtain a pecuniary advantage or to compel the person to act against her will. This type of threat constitutes the crime of EXTORTION. For example, Colorado law states that any person "who communicates threats to another person with the intention thereby to obtain anything of value or any acquittance, advantage, or IMMUNITY is guilty of extortion" (C.S.S. § 28-3.1-543).

Nineteen states have laws against terrorizing or making terroristic threats. Terrorizing usually means threatening to commit a crime of violence or unlawfully causing the evacuation of a building or facility. Terroristic threat is generally defined as threatening to kill another with the intent of putting that person in fear of imminent death and under circumstances that would reasonably cause the victim to believe that the threat will be carried out.

Many states have also enacted antistalking laws, which deal with unwanted communications. STALKING is a criminal activity consisting of a series of actions that are designed to threaten but, taken individually, might constitute legal behavior. For example, sending flowers, writing love notes, and waiting for someone outside her place of work are actions that, on their own, are not criminal. When these actions are coupled with an intent to injure or instill fear, however, they may constitute a pattern of behavior that is illegal. A stalking victim may ask a court to issue a protection or RESTRAINING ORDER that directs the defendant not to communicate or come within the vicinity of the victim. If the defendant persists in communicating with the victim, a court may hold the defendant in CONTEMPT, impose fines, or incarcerate the defendant, depending on state law.

Other specialized criminal offenses also deal with unlawful communications. For example, threatening to harm the president of the United States and using the U.S. mail to transmit threatening communications are federal offenses.

Under the civil TORT actions of LIBEL AND SLANDER, a person who defames the good name and reputation of another may be sued for damages. The action of libel is based on a written defamatory communication, and a slander action is based on oral DEFAMATION. In addition, a plaintiff can recover damages for the intentional infliction of severe mental or emotional suffering or for the unreasonable intrusion upon his privacy caused by threats or unlawful communications.

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