N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4 distinguishes between “communications” and “language” that violate the statute in subsection (a), and “conduct” and “acts” that do so in subsection (c). Although a “course of alarming conduct” or “repeatedly committed acts” can occur through communications and language alone, it is far from clear that the Legislature had in mind offensive speech as the object of N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(c). That the primary thrust of N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(c) is not to interdict speech, but rather conduct, is reinforced by State v. Hoffman.
Criminal laws touching on speech must give fair notice of where the line is set between what is permissible and proscribed and must be drawn with appropriate definiteness. A court can invalidate a statute that is substantially overbroad on its face if the statute reaches a substantial amount of constitutionally protected conduct. Such a drastic remedy, however, is not the only—and not even the preferred—approach. Provided that a statute is reasonably susceptible to an interpretation that will render it constitutional, courts must construe the statute to conform to the Constitution.
This rule of statutory construction assists with the efficient administration of justice. It would be far less efficient to strike a statute down and force the Legislature to start from square one in drafting and approving a new statute that could also be struck down as unconstitutional.
The vaguely and broadly worded standard in N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(c) does not put a reasonable person on sufficient notice of the kinds of speech that the statute proscribes. The statute’s vagueness also gives prosecuting authorities undue discretion to bring charges related to permissive expressive activities. That, in turn, means that the statute—if not more narrowly defined—has the capacity to chill permissible speech. Under N.J.S.A. 2C:33-4(c), a person who, with the purpose to seriously annoy another, does seriously annoy another is guilty of harassment. Speech, however, cannot be transformed into criminal conduct merely because it annoys, disturbs, or arouses contempt. The First Amendment protects offensive discourse, hateful ideas, and crude language because freedom of expression needs breathing room and in the long run leads to a more enlightened society.