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First Amendment question left unresolved in plea deal for Batavia mother accused of harassing school officials

By Howard B. Owens

A Batavia mother charged with harassment in the second degree for sending a series of angry emails, including one with profanity, to City School officials will not need to admit to any wrongdoing under terms of a plea agreement reached in City Court on Wednesday.

Kate Long, 39, accepted an offer from the District Attorney's Office to get the charge against her dismissed if she can avoid any additional criminal charges over the next six months.

That would wipe the slate clean, as if she was never charged in the first place. It would also mean no legal challenge to her arrest, which could have very well violated her First Amendment rights to free speech and petitioning the government for a redress of grievances.

It makes perfect sense that Long would accept the plea offer, said Constitutional scholar Jared Carter, but the plea could also potentially mean government agencies remain free to use the harassment 2nd statute to silence critics.

"My initial reaction, from a pure First Amendment perspective, is this was always a troubling case based on the facts as I understand them," Carter told The Batavian on Wednesday evening. "On one hand, there is some vindication of the First Amendment on the basis of the dismissal.  Of course, you don't have a ruling from a court saying this arrest was unconstitutional, so does the school district or law enforcement or whatever (agency) have any check on power? Can they again do what they want to do, and the short answer is, 'Yes.'  That's the unfortunate aspect of all of this."

Carter is counsel with the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic, based in Ithaca, and a professor of Law at Vermont Law and Graduate School. Carter specializes in First Amendment cases.

Long, a mother of three children, was issued a summons in November and charged with a single count of harassment in the second degree, a violation of Penal Law 240.26(3), which reads:

He or she engages in a course of conduct or repeatedly commits acts which alarm or seriously annoy such other person and which serve no legitimate purpose.

The charge was based on a criminal complaint filed with Batavia PD by John Marucci, president of the Board of Education for the Batavia City School District.

The complaint cited a Nov. 8 email that contained profanity and noted that Long had sent a series of emails over a short period of time complaining about how her son's Spanish class at Batavia Middle School was being handled.

In order to comment on the charge for an article The Batavian published on Dec. 18, Carter reviewed the emails and the charging documents and offered the opinion that Long's conduct would likely be viewed as protected speech by any court asked to rule on the constitutionality of her arrest. 

"They're (prosecutors) skating on very thin constitutional ice if any ice at all," Carter told The Batavian in December when discussing the arrest and prosecution of Long. "The First Amendment robustly protects Freedom of Speech, and the freedom to criticize government action. That would include criticizing the way that a school handles itself."

In 2014, the state's aggravated harassment statute, which contained similar language but specifically targeted speech, was ruled unconstitutional.  The state Legislature changed that law the following year but left open the ability of police to arrest individuals engaged in speech that is deemed offensive conduct under the harassment 2nd statute. 

Buffalo attorney Tom Trbovich, retained by Long to represent her in City Court, told The Batavian after her initial court appearance that he wasn't likely to mount a constitutional challenge to her arrest, suggesting an easier resolution could be negotiated with the District Attorney's Office.

"I think this was a good resolution," Trbovich said after court on Wednesday. "Right now, we were circling the wagons and making sure that nothing goes wrong. And hopefully, this will be taken care of in six months as if it never happened."

Asked if he thought his client committed a crime, Trbovich offered a slight smile and said, "I don't want to antagonize the office. I got a good disposition."

There are no conditions on Long over the next six months other than she avoid a criminal conviction, though Trbovich offered in court that Long would agree to have no further contact with school employees at Batavia Middle School.

Her son has transferred to Notre Dame, and her husband would have remained free to talk with school officials.

Judge Durin Rogers rejected the condition because there are typically no additional conditions on an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.

Carter said Trbovich getting a potential dismissal of the charge for his client was understandable.

"Criminal defense attorneys try to get the best outcome for their clients by keeping them out of harm's way," Carter said. "It totally makes sense to tread carefully, to get the best outcome for his client as he can. I totally get that. I'm not second-guessing that at all."

But, he said, the First Amendment is still in play for Long if she wishes to pursue it as a civil matter, meaning, filing a lawsuit against the school district or the police department, if she feels her arrest did her harm or that it has a chilling effect on her future speech.  The fact she offered to have no future contact with the school, Carter indicated, suggests her arrest does indicate she is willing to self-censor out of fear of repercussion.

"You have to have some sort of injury to get in the courthouse door," Carter said. "Would a chilling effect be enough if she wanted to bring a First Amendment case? It could be injury enough to get in the courthouse door."

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