Beware of the risks of maliciously speaking out

July 2, 2010
| By Bill Rohn |
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There is little that is more "American" than the concept of free speech. Still, be careful what you write, even when you use an alias on the Internet.

Consider the plight of Bruce Shore, a 51-year-old, unemployed Philadelphia resident.

Writing under the name "Brad Shore” and saying he was from Louisville, Ky., Shore sent angry e-mails to former Detroit Tiger pitching great and now Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning in late February of this year.

Shore chewed on Senator Bunning for complaining on CSPAN that a senate debate over unemployment benefits had forced him to miss a Kentucky-South Carolina college basketball game. When Shore learned of Bunning's dilemma, he decided to send an e-mail or two blasting the senator. And, because Bunning is a senator from Kentucky, perhaps Shore thought that claiming to be from Louisville would give his messages an added bite.

Shore, who confessed to being livid because he was on unemployment and was therefore greatly affected by what the U.S. Senate does or doesn't do, fired away: "Are you all insane?" Shore wrote. "No checks equal no food for me.  DO YOU GET IT??"

After hitting "send," Shore probably thought that he would never hear from Bunning. After all, how many thousands of e-mails must a U.S. Senator receive?

And, with March Madness fast approaching, Senator Bunning potentially had a full slate of college games to occupy his time.

Imagine, then, Bruce Shore's surprise when federal agents appeared at his home in mid-May with a grand jury indictment. Shore was ordered to appear in federal court in Covington, Ky., May 28 to answer a charge of felony e-mail harassment.

The felony indictment indicated that Shore had utilized "a telecommunications device, that is a computer, whether or not communication ensued, without disclosing his identity and with the intent to annoy, abuse, threaten and harass any person who received the communication."

Asked to describe precisely how Shore's conduct fit the statutory language quoted above, the U.S. Attorney's office in Kentucky indicated that the Department of Justice prohibits further comment on filings such as the Shore indictment.

If convicted, Shore could pay a fine of up to $250,000. He also faces the possibility of up to two years in prison.

The Shore case raises many questions and issues. For starters, it is possible that Senator Bunning himself never saw the e-mails in question and that the activities undertaken by law enforcement were undertaken as a matter of course, given concerns over a potential threat to a U.S. Senator. Certainly, publicity related to the case did Senator Bunning's image little good and led to outcry over First Amendment free speech rights and whether the little guy ever gets a fair shake from his elected representative.

All of which is to make no mention of whether our nation's unemployment crisis ought to trump two courtside seats to a major college basketball game.

The foregoing aside, there is the issue of the literal language of the federal statute. It's worth remembering the next time you consider using a made-up name and hitting "send" on an angry e-mail.

Again, the statute says that you may face felony charges if you use a computer — even where no real communication ensues — without disclosing your identity, where your purpose is to annoy, abuse, threaten and harass the target of your communication. And again, if convicted, you could go to prison for two years and pay a $250,000 maximum fine.

Two years in prison for failing to disclose your identity in an annoying e-mail?

You'd probably also lose your job.

Which brings us back to Brad Shore from Louisville … er, Bruce Shore from Philadelphia: He pled not guilty in late May.

So the case of United States of America vs. Bruce Shore now moves toward trial, unless World Cup soccer or the fall college football season gets in the way.

Bill Rohn is a trial lawyer and a partner in the firm of Varnum LLP in Grand Rapids.

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