BRATTLEBORO — With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, a Brattleboro woman has filed a federal lawsuit against the Vermont attorney general and the Windham County state’s attorney, challenging the state’s disturbing-the-peace statute.
Isabel Vinson was cited with disturbing the peace “by use of telephone or other electronic communications” — in this case Facebook — by the Brattleboro Police Department, after a local business owner filed a complaint that a post by Vinson resulted in harassment and caused them to fear for their safety.
“In June 2020,” reads the complaint filed on Thursday, the business owner shared a meme that appeared to criticize the Black Lives Matter movement on his personal Facebook page. The meme stated “How about all lives matter. Not black lives, not white lives. Get over yourself no one’s life is more important than the next. Put your race card away and grow up.”
On June 6, 2020, Vinson, who is a BLM supporter, posted on her own Facebook page and tagged the business page, stating, “Disgusting. The owner ... thinks this is okay and no matter how many people try and tell him it’s wrong he doesn’t seem to care.”
The complaint states in the comments on her post, Vinson recommended that everyone “leave a review on his page so [he] can never forget to be honest,” and also tagged a Facebook group called “Exposing Every Racist.”
After Vinson was cited by police, the ACLU filed a public records request about the incident, and shortly thereafter, the Brattleboro Police Department offered Vinson diversion instead of criminal charges. Two days after Vinson rejected that offer, the charges were dropped without explanation.
Vinson was never actually charged in court, but as a result of the citation, states the complaint, “Ms. Vinson’s speech has been chilled. She has been reluctant to post on Facebook, especially posts criticizing local businesses, because she has a real and imminent fear of future prosecution.”
Brattleboro Police Chief Norma Hardy told the Reformer the case was reviewed, and all proper procedures were followed.
“The ACLU stands by the complaint,” said Stephanie Gomory, communications director. “Anything we would say is already in there.”
Vinson is represented by the ACLU and the firm Dinse in Burlington.
The lawsuit asserts that the statute at issue unconstitutionally restricts online speech. Vinson is asking the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont to declare that the statute violates the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, and to issue an injunction prohibiting its enforcement going forward.
“This case is yet another example of law enforcement overreach in our communities,” said Jay Diaz, ACLU of Vermont general counsel, in a statement announcing the suit. “Vermont police should have better things to do than targeting and criminally citing Vermonters for nonthreatening Facebook posts. It also demonstrates why First Amendment freedoms are so important, and why restrictions on free speech are often problematic.”
Charity Clark, spokeswoman for the AG’s Office, wrote in an email to the Reformer, “Our office had no involvement in this matter and would refer any questions to the Brattleboro Police Department or the Windham County State’s Attorney’s Office.”
Windham County State’s Attorney Tracy Shriver had no comment on the complaint.
The lawsuit is characterized as “a constitutional challenge to the state of Vermont’s disturbing peace by use of telephone or other electronic communications,” under which Vinson was cited for engaging in constitutionally protected speech.
The complaint describes the statute as “at once vague and exceedingly broad in scope.”
The statute reads: “A person who, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass or annoy, makes contact by means of a telephonic or other electronic communication with another and makes any request, suggestion or proposal that is obscene, lewd, lascivious or indecent; threatens to inflict injury or physical harm to the person or property of any person; or disturbs, or attempts to disturb, by repeated telephone calls or other electronic communications, whether or not conversation ensues, the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person at the place where the communication or communications are received, shall be fined not more than $250 or be imprisoned not more than three months, or both.”
The suit is asking for a declaration holding the statute unconstitutional and a permanent injunction prohibiting its enforcement, along with attorney’s fees and costs.