PORTLAND – The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the ACLU’s State Supreme Court Initiative Tuesday filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court arguing parts of a vague anti-stalking law criminalize protected speech in violation of a June 2023 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The case stems from the July 2022 conviction of Jacob Labbe, Sr., in Androscoggin County Superior Court. The jury was told they could convict Labbe based solely on his speech, even if they found no evidence of a true threat, intimidation, or ill intent tied to his speech. Labbe was ultimately convicted on various charges, including violating a vague law intended to punish people for stalking. As a result, Labbe lost his liberty and was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison only for his speech.
During the trial, the prosecution told jurors they could convict Labbe based only on his texts and other communications to his spouse, and that jurors did not have to find that Labbe understood or intended his speech to be threatening. The brief argues the “jury was authorized to find Labbe guilty of stalking 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.”
The vague statute in question was intended to punish people for stalking, but the lack of clarity opens the door for the criminalization of some speech in violation of the First Amendment. While Labbe’s case was pending on appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2023 in Counterman v. Colorado that “when the state prosecutes someone based on a theory that their speech amounted to a ‘true threat,’ the state must prove that ‘the defendant had some subjective understanding of the threatening nature of his statements,’” according to the brief. Authorizing the jury to convict Labbe based only on his speech – not his intentions, other conduct, or motive – is a violation of Counterman.
The brief was filed in response to the Law Court’s September request for amicus briefs on the constitutionality of the statute as applied in Labbe’s case in light of Counterman.