ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday, Dec. 9, issued a decision reversing charges against a man who'd made several threatening calls to Rice County officials and determined a Minnesota stalking-by-telephone law under which the man was convicted is overly broad.
Jason Elliot Peterson was convicted of two counts of stalking after he made dozens of phone calls in 2016 and 2017 to Rice County Sheriff’s Department and social services department employees, which they reported made them feel "frightened." The calls stemmed from a 2002 family law case, according to court reports.
Sheriff's deputies and other county employees took security measures after profanity-filled calls with Peterson because they feared he posed a risk to their safety. Peterson was charged and sentenced to 365 days in jail for each count.
He then challenged the ruling and brought the issue to court, where he said the state law abridged his First Amendment right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution. Under Minnesota's stalking-by-telephone law, a person can be charged with a misdemeanor offense if a person, "repeatedly makes telephone calls, sends text messages, or induces a victim to make telephone calls to the actor, whether or not conversation ensues."
But that's too vague, the court ruled, as it could restrict the speech of that person.
Judge Diane Bratvold in the court's opinion wrote that the law as written "is unconstitutionally overbroad because it prohibits a substantial amount of protected speech in violation of the First Amendment, and it is not susceptible to a judicial remedy."
And while the court may find Peterson's behavior "upsetting and inappropriate, and that the state has an interest in prohibiting this type of conduct," Bratvold said, "the state may not do so by criminalizing a substantial amount of protected speech in an overly broad statute."