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EDITORIAL: Since when is it illegal to embarrass a public official?

Being exposed to controversial or distasteful ideas is one of the many privileges of living in a free society. Increasingly, however, free speech and expression is under attack from those who erroneously believe they have a right to be shielded from rhetoric they find unpleasant.

Consider a current case in Washington state.

As the Associated Press reports, Richard Lee Rynearson III, a retired Air Force major in Washington, has written numerous online posts that criticize Clarence Moriwaki, a community activist and founder of a memorial to the World War II-era internment of Japanese-Americans. Mr. Rynearson insists that those who condemn the internment should also condemn the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which allows for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens in the fight against terrorism.

Mr. Moriwaki hasn’t condemned the policy, which Mr. Rynearson says, among other things, makes him “unfit to be the president or board member for our memorial.”

Mr. Moriwaki successfully obtained a temporary restraining order against Mr. Rynearson under Washington’s 2004 cyberstalking law, which makes it illegal to send electronic communications repeatedly or anonymously intended to “harass, intimidate, torment, or embarrass” someone. Investigators have now recommended that cyberstalking charges be filed against the Air Force veteran.

But Mr. Rynearson isn’t backing down — and he has something on his side that Washington officials are apparently unfamiliar with: the First Amendment. Internet lawyer Venkat Balasubramani and Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor filed a lawsuit on his behalf.

“How can it possibly be constitutional to ban mean speech online?” Mr. Volokh asked The Seattle Times. “If someone is appalled by a local official and wants to embarrass them by posting things online, that’s a crime?”

The law is clearly overbroad. As Mr. Volokh points out, since when is it illegal to embarrass someone? The statute criminalizes common online behavior, as well as constitutionally protected speech.

“In sum, Rynearson engages in core political expression of a sort squarely within the heartland of what the First Amendment protects, and yet legitimately fears prosecution under the statute based upon the provocative and critical nature of what he writes and publishes online,” Mr. Volokh wrote in a recent Washington Post blog post.

As Mr. Volokh points out, online harassment laws such as Washington’s have been struck down in years past by state courts in New York and North Carolina. Good. The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech is at the core of all other freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

Mr. Rynearson has removed his webpage and stopped criticizing Moriwaki. Let’s hope he is eventually free to express himself without fear of prosecution.

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