Harassment and the First Amendment: Part 1

by | Feb 6, 2018 | Blog, Criminal Law, New Jersey

On December 19, 2017, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the case of State v. William Burkert. The principle issue was whether the harassment statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(c), violated the first amendment. Justice Albin wrote for the six-justice majority.

This case tests the limits to which a broadly worded harassment statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(c), can criminalize speech. William Burkert and Gerald Halton were corrections officers, who held positions in different unions representing distinct classes of officers. Their relationship became particularly strained after Burkert read online comments attributed to Halton’s wife that Burkert felt insulted him and his family. Angered by the insulting online comments, Burkert retaliated. Burkert downloaded the Haltons’ wedding photograph. He then copied the photograph and made two flyers, writing lewd dialogue in speech bubbles over the faces of the bride and groom.

Halton testified that on January 8, 2011, he arrived at the employee garage of the Union County Jail and saw papers “blowing all over the place.” He picked one up and discovered Flyer #1. The next day, when Halton arrived at work, a sergeant handed him Flyer #2, which the sergeant had found in the area of the officers’ locker room. Halton identified the handwriting on both flyers as Burkert’s. On January 11, while Halton was engaged in union negotiations, a lieutenant handed him Flyer #2, stating, “This came out the other night.” Halton indicated that he “was a mess in negotiations,” went home, and never returned to work. Halton explained that he felt embarrassed and concerned for his safety and received psychological counseling and treatment.

Ten months after the January incidents, Halton filed criminal harassment charges against Burkert. Halton stated that he filed the charges only because the county had failed to properly discipline Burkert. He also filed a civil lawsuit against Burkert. During the county’s investigation into the flyers, Burkert admitted that he had prepared the flyers but denied circulating them. Burkert explained that he expressed himself through the flyers rather than “get physical with the guy.” Burkert retired as a corrections officer in September 2012.