In defense of spammers

E-mail spam is a curse. But it’s only a new incarnation of a whole set of earlier curses.

Do you really enjoy all those unsolicited ads in your “snail” mailbox, for everything from car insurance to two-for-one buffets? How about people who ring the phone at dinner time trying to collect a debt from someone you’ve never heard of, or conducting a poll?

Most would give a big cheer if told there were some way to stop strangers from bothering us with such communications. But admit it: A few times a year, someone in your household grabs one of those pieces of junk mail just before it hits the trash can and says, “Hey, wait a minute, we might use that.”

Banning unsolicited communications sounds great until it comes time to define which communications shall be illegal, and how we’re going to track down and punish the offenders, and which exceptions should fall under, “No, I didn’t mean that.”

The courts are in the business of asking such pesky, technical questions, and it was presumably as a result of such calculations that the U.S. Supreme Court this week declined to consider reinstating Virginia’s tough anti-spam law, leaving in place a lower court ruling that threw out the measure as unconstitutional.

The high court’s decision ends the legal odyssey of the 2003 law, one of the nation’s first, which was intended to crack down on people who send masses of unwanted e-mail. Internet service providers estimate that 90 percent of e-mail is spam.

The Virginia Supreme Court in September ruled that the law violated the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. The law made it a misdemeanor to send unsolicited bulk e-mail by using false transmission information, such as a phony domain name or Internet protocol address. The crime turned into a felony if more than 10,000 recipients were targeted in a 24-hour period.

The Virginia Supreme Court ruling overturned the conviction of Jeremy Jaynes, who was sentenced to nine years in prison, although he’s serving time in federal prison on an unrelated conviction.

It’s hard to feel much sympathy for such exasperating operators. But if protection of our own First Amendment rights depends on tolerating the Jeremy Jaynes of this world, then the high court made the right call.

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