Is Brian Leiter guilty of cyber-stalking?

Paul Campos, a professor at the University of Colorado, raised the issue of whether Brian Leiter has been cyber-stalking critics on Lawyers, Guns & Money earlier this week.

A little back story: Brian Leiter is a professor at the University of Chicago. He is wont to hurl insults, for instance by calling critics or people who simply rub him the wrong way “morally deranged” and “crazies”. Also, he throws around the term Repugs for Republicans because what better way for a professor of law and philosophy at one of the country’s leading academic institutions to criticize an opposing ideology than to use such language. He’s a friendly guy, the kind of guy who should be tasked with the awesome responsibility of shaping young legal minds. Really, Brian Leiter is kind of jerk.

While Leiter believes some reforms are due, he is, in general, a defender of the legal academic enterprise. Indeed, part of his career is based on discerning the differences that make this or that law school better ranked than the next. He’s like USNWR, with less influence and fewer readers. Leiter’s obnoxious online persona has raised the ire of countless recent graduates who are underemployed or unemployed and faced with huge amounts of non-dischargeable debt.

Some of them have even written Leiter. Leiter doesn’t like to be criticized. So therefore, he has taken it upon himself to report at least some critics to their superiors. That’s how he rolls. While he calls other people bullies, he’s the one writing the bosses of people who send him emails with pointed questions.

In an amazing display of privilege and self-importance, Leiter outed someone who sent him sharp criticism (but used no foul or abusive language) and then reported the emailer to his firm’s partners.

Leiter enjoys tenure, so he’s free to say almost whatever he wishes about other people or institutions without fear of serious repercussions, such as losing his job. The rest of us can say things critical of Brian Leiter and his friends, but we’re going to be accused – laughably – of being bullies, of defaming and of insulting people. It’s all too rich.

Let’s be clear: Since none of these acts have apparently occurred in North Carolina, Brian Leiter couldn’t be prosecuted here. But let’s assume for a moment that jurisdiction is not an issue. Would Brian Leiter’s conduct, as alleged by Paul Campos, constitute cyber-stalking in North Carolina?

N.C.G.S. Sec. 14-196.3 Cyberstalking.

(a) The following definitions apply in this section:

(1) Electronic communication. – Any transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data, or intelligence of any nature, transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, computer, electromagnetic, photoelectric, or photo?optical system.

(2) Electronic mail. – The transmission of information or communication by the use of the Internet, a computer, a facsimile machine, a pager, a cellular telephone, a video recorder, or other electronic means sent to a person identified by a unique address or address number and received by that person.

(b) It is unlawful for a person to:

(1) Use in electronic mail or electronic communication any words or language threatening to inflict bodily harm to any person or to that person’s child, sibling, spouse, or dependent, or physical injury to the property of any person, or for the purpose of extorting money or other things of value from any person.

(2) Electronically mail or electronically communicate to another repeatedly, whether or not conversation ensues, for the purpose of abusing, annoying, threatening, terrifying, harassing, or embarrassing any person.

(3) Electronically mail or electronically communicate to another and to knowingly make any false statement concerning death, injury, illness, disfigurement, indecent conduct, or criminal conduct of the person electronically mailed or of any member of the person’s family or household with the intent to abuse, annoy, threaten, terrify, harass, or embarrass.

(4) Knowingly permit an electronic communication device under the person’s control to be used for any purpose prohibited by this section.

(c) Any offense under this section committed by the use of electronic mail or electronic communication may be deemed to have been committed where the electronic mail or electronic communication was originally sent, originally received in this State, or first viewed by any person in this State.

(d) Any person violating the provisions of this section shall be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.

(e) This section does not apply to any peaceable, nonviolent, or nonthreatening activity intended to express political views or to provide lawful information to others. This section shall not be construed to impair any constitutionally protected activity, including speech, protest, or assembly. (2000?125, s. 1; 2000?140, s. 91.)

Leiter, to my knowledge, hasn’t used email to threaten to inflict bodily harm to any person… or physical injury to the property of any person. However, there’s a non-frivolous argument that he may have electronically mailed or electronically communicated to another person repeatedly, whether or not conversation ensures, for the purpose of abusing, annoying, threatening, terrifying, harassing, or embarrassing any person.

Campos has alleged that Leiter used a fake handle on JD Underground, a popular forum for discussion of law school admissions and related issues, asking first about the identity of another person, “dybbuk,” and then, apparently, replying to his own post. First, assuming this is Leiter who was posting under the fake handle, he could argue in his defense that the communication was directed “to” dybbuk, and therefore not cyberstalking.

Second, this probably doesn’t constitute cyberstalking, at least under North Carolina law, because, while creepy, the conduct must be repeated. Finally, even if the charges were to stick, Leiter would have a good argument that North Carolina’s cyberstalking law is overbroad, and therefore violates the principles of due process, and also contravenes the First Amendment in certain respects.

A second Leiter critic, who goes by the handle BrianLeitersRottingTeeth has alleged that either Leiter, a friend of Leiter, or a supporter of Leiter contacted him asking how things are “in Virginia” and had apparently used information gleaned from other blogs, to locate, contact, and issue veiled threats against him. If this indeed Leiter, this conduct may in fact be cyberstalking given the threats. Also, Brian Leiter should brush his teeth, because they look yellow.

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Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.