What's at Stake
This free-speech case concerns a prosecution for “stalking” based on evidence of a defendant’s speech alone, without any requirement of subjective intent. Freedom of speech is a bedrock protection of both the Maine Constitution and the United States Constitution. This protection requires, at minimum, that a criminal defendant cannot be prosecuted for stalking carried out via speech alone unless the state proves a subjective-intent element beyond a reasonable doubt. This protection ensures that states do not prosecute and punish people for their protected speech. In October 2023, the ACLU and the ACLU of Maine filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine, asking the court to vacate a defendant’s stalking conviction that was based on his speech alone, without any evidence as to subjective intent.
Following a pattern of unwanted contact with his estranged wife, the appellant in State v. Labbe was charged with one count of domestic violence stalking, among other charges. Maine’s domestic violence stalking statute provides that a defendant can be convicted of stalking for “intentionally or knowingly” engaging “in a court of conduct directed at or concerning a specific person that would cause a reasonable person” to “suffer serious inconvenience or emotional distress.” The statute provided that a “course of conduct” can consist of speech alone, without any accompanying acts. It does not require any showing that the defendant intended, or even consciously disregarded a risk of, “serious inconvenience or emotional distress.”
Consistent with the stalking statute, the jury in Labbe’s case was authorized to find him guilty based on his speech alone, without regard to whether he engaged in that speech with unlawful intent or even a conscious disregard of his speech’s likely impact. In fact, the state prosecutor highlighted this aspect of Maine law to the jury that convicted Labbe.
In June 2023, the United States Supreme Court decided Counterman v. Colorado, a First Amendment case holding that a state may not convict someone of stalking carried out via speech alone unless the state establishes some degree of subjective intent. The ACLU’s State Supreme Court Initiative, along with the ACLU of Maine, filed an amicus brief addressing Counterman’s effect on Maine law and Labbe’s prosecution. This brief argued that the conviction for stalking violated the free speech protections of the Maine and U.S. Constitutions and must be vacated.
The case remains pending on appeal.