Happy Valentine’s Day! We certainly hope that all of our readers are enjoying the holiday, whether you are celebrating with loved ones, ignoring it altogether and having a normal Friday night, having an anti-Valentine’s event, or just curling up with a movie, a blanket, and that special bowl of ice cream.
But what happens when you have that person who just won’t leave you alone? The one who calls and calls 10 times a day, or, even worse, leaves threatening messages, texts or emails? That can make your Valentine’s Day unpleasant or even scary, and if you live in Illinois, it is illegal.
Under Illinois law, Harassment by Telephone and Harassment Through Electronic Communications are both crimes. ( For the exact wording of the law, take a look at 720 ILCS 135/1-1 and 720 ILCS 135/1-2.) This article will explain what constitutes such harassment.
Types of Harassment
Illinois law defines “Harassment by Telephone” as using the telephone to make obscene phone calls with the intent to offend; make a call with the intent to abuse, threaten or harass any person at the called number; make the telephone of another repeatedly ring with the intent to harass any person at the called number; make repeated telephone calls solely to harass any person at the called number; or make a call, or induce someone to make the call for you, in order to harass someone under 13, even if that person consents to the harassment. You can also be convicted of Harassment by Telephone if you allow someone else to use your phone in order to commit one of the above described acts.
“Harassment Through Electronic Communications” is defined a little differently. This statute prevents using electronic communications to make obscene comments or suggestions with the intent to offend; interrupt the telephone or electronic communications service or another person with the intent to harass; transmit any file that prevents a person from using their telephone service or electronic communications device; harass anyone under the age of 13, even if that person consents to the harassment; or threaten injury to the person to whom the communication is directed or to one of that persons family or household members. You can also be convicted of Harassment Through Electronic Communications if you allow someone to use your electronic communications device to commit one of the above described acts.
What is Harassment?
This leaves the question, “What is harassment?” After all, doesn’t the First Amendment give us the right to free speech? Where is the line between protected speech and harassment that can be prosecuted as a crime? This is a question that the courts have encountered many times and tried to answer. Illinois courts have generally defined harassment as “intentional acts which can cause someone to be worried, anxious, or uncomfortable”. However, in order to comply with the First Amendment, we have to be careful how we interpret these words. The courts have said that the First Amendment requires a level of emotional disturbance “significantly more serious than the mildest states those words suggest”. More concretely, they have held that while it is not necessarily restricted only to threats, there must be an intent to produce “emotional distress akin to that of a threat.”
If you are still not sure exactly what that means, you are not alone. Many lawyers and judges aren’t sure either, and people are still sometimes charged based on speech that should be constitutionally protected. Certainly, any threats to person or property would fall under this statute, and the courts have held that we can’t infer intent to harass based on a few vulgarities alone, or based on a call made for the purpose of settling or expressing a dispute or disagreement. However, the cases in the gray area in between tend to be decided on a case by case basis, and unless you really want to be the subject of a First Amendment test case, getting arrested and charged with a crime, even if the appeals court eventually takes your side, is a huge inconvenience.
So what should you do if you aren’t quite sure where the line is between protected speech and harassment? My advice: if you are feeling the love, today is a great day to call that special someone and tell them, but please, one call only, and keep it polite! And if you are feeling the hate, just don’t pick up the phone/keyboard at all.
Hello. Could you please tell me if there is an Illinois statute against harassment in person as a civil lawsuit, not a criminal one. UPS delivery man, for no apparent reason, started verbally attacking me by using very obscene and threatening language as I and my wife felt very threatened by his crazy, obscene tirade.
Barry Gram Carol Stream, Illinois
There is not really a civil statute against harassment per se. Civil lawsuit are more steeped in the principles and theory of law. Civil lawsuits must be founded on a claim, which is the the legal word for a basis for a lawsuit. Claims or grounds for civil lawsuits are often found based on what is referred to as a tort. Without going into a lawschool discussion of what tort’s are…. the basis for a claim of harassment would be under founded under either two torts, intentional infliction of emotional distress, or assault but the the civil form of assault. Specific facts or elements need to be plead in each case. There also has to be some form of damages alleged in a civil suit. Without knowing more than these facts it would be difficult to comment on the validity of this claim and I would be concerned there is a lack of damages.
Thank you for your insightful, legal response. Would you think it better if I just filed a civil lawsuit citing “Slander”? Since everyone in my building heard the UPS driver’s unwarranted, cursing tirade, I feel my standing in my building with my neighbors, as well with my building manager who also heard about this threatening event, has been damaged as I was a Dupage County Election Judge for more than seven years and was quite highly regarded by my neighbors and witnesses before this cursing tirade. Furthermore, my wife was so shaken she was forced to go the doctor in hopes the physician could give her something for her fearful anxiety, which would be another way to show “damage”?
Would a purposeful slander charge in small claims court against UPS be the way I should pursue this?
Thank you for your time.
In terms of damages you have to show there has been an actual monetary loss to you in the form of a lost job or lost wages. Meaning that the loss of your reputation led you to lose out on a job or other business opportunities. Without showing that it would be very hard to proceed on this case. Small claims cases typically do not really deal with claims under a theory of “slander”. I am not sure a Judge would allow this case to proceed but you are always welcome to try it and see. Bear in mind you would have to get all these neighbors into Court to be witnesses as to the event. Only the Parties that actually firsthand heard or participated in the conversation can testify. If a party does not have first hand knowledge of the event, then the would be excluded.
I have an OP against me because of texting my boyfriend some text about our love and God when agirl answered his phone saying she and him were having sex and etc said her name was Beck and lived in another town Then in court a women named Kim said she was pretending to be Becky and lied about what she said on the stand., I never threaten anyone, swore, or anything abusive. Mine were about love and God. The judge never seen any of the text because the guy that got it on me didn’t have any proof. but the judge gave him the OP for 2 years against me. I want this off my record so I want to file a motion to reconsider due to lack of evidence and I have witnesses. Also his witness saying she was Becky was lying then in court saying she is Kim, so does it count that she lies when she feels the need but we should believe her in court?