New York's highest court has ruled that merely being annoying is not a crime, reports The New York Times, in a bizarre case involving a real estate lawyer, internet sock puppets, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The state's aggravated harassment statute, which made it a crime to speak "in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm," was struck down by the Albany Court of Appeals yesterday, reports the Times. It is expected to affect hundreds of harassment cases being prosecuted now.
The ruling allowed Raphael Golb, a 54-year-old Greenwich Village lawyer with a PhD from Harvard, to escape a conviction for waging an online smear campaign for more than five years.
Golb's father is a University of Chicago professor and proponent of the theory that the Dead Sea Scrolls were created by libraries in Jerusalem, as opposed to being the work of a sect called the Essenes. As obtuse as it sounds, this is a fierce and raging debate across the internet. Sock puppets — false identities used to create the illusion that one person's opinion is actually held by many — are often found on entertainment sites like Reddit. But they're also increasingly found in the academic community, making arguments on Twitter and disparaging rivals' books in Amazon reviews.
Golb used more than 50 aliases to attack his father's critics
The younger Golb used more than 50 different online aliases and email accounts to shout down critics of his father. He also impersonated his father's critics, opening email accounts in their names and sending messages pretending to confess to wronging the elder Golb. He invented discussions between aliases like "Charles Gadda," "Richard Moss," "Jessica Friedman," and others, while posting on news sites, blogs, Wikipedia, and even calling the media departments of universities.
In one instance, the younger Golb created a Gmail account, firstname.lastname@example.org, for Lawrence H. Schiffman, the chairman of Judaic studies at New York University. He then sent an email to graduate students and the dean, linking to an article written under another false identity and suggesting Schiffman plagiarized it.
Some attorneys say striking down the harassment statute will take away an important weapon against stalking, domestic violence, and other crimes. Those on the other side call it a victory for free speech.
Golb did get convicted of misdemeanor counts related to forgery and criminal impersonation. The Verge invites him to weigh in in the comment section.
Update: Golb declined to join in the comment section, but he pointed to a website documenting the trial and emailed a statement to The Verge:
In essence, I became aware of what is arguably a scam going on in a series of museum exhibits, and began to post little blogs and comments pointing it out, as a hobby while doing a lot of tedious research for a book I was writing at the library. As one or more people involved in the exhibits began to make angry comments in their defense, I decided to switch names all the time to make a point, partly humorous, partly serious: that I was not going to go away and would continue to pop up wherever they posted propaganda for their exhibits; that I was happy to fracture my identity for the sake of exposing what they were doing, just as they were trying to create a fake consensus surrounding their faith-based, speculative theories. My basic goal in everything I did was simply to provoke discussion and criticize a form of obscurantism and charlatanry that I found repugnant and worthy of being exposed.
Given the situation I was objecting to, I really don't see what's morally wrong with any of this unless one is looking at it from a priggish, puritanical perspective; but the prosecutors were very skilled at presenting me as a nutcase with a weird agenda. Sadly, in doing this, they did a lot of damage to the truth, and removed the focus from where it belonged and still belongs, which is on the conduct of these people, not mine. A "reputation" can only be damaged if it's deserved, and whether it's deserved is something reasonable people can always disagree about. Hence not appropriate, I would submit, for a criminal trial, where the burden of proof is "beyond a reasonable doubt."