State Sen. Liz Krueger. The East Side Democrat recently introduced abill in Albany that would close a legal loophole and facilitate theprosecution of online sexual harassment cases. Photo: Office of LizKrueger
BY DOUGLAS FEIDEN
The seismic power of the #MeToo movement has transformed the workplace, toppled executives, redefined personal relationships, revved up awareness and rattled the worlds of media, culture and politics.
What it has yet to do is change the legal means by which prosecutors in New York can pursue sexual harassment offenders who prey on their victims with text messages, emails or other electronic communications.
Now, two female state lawmakers who represent the Upper East Side are advancing legislation in Albany that would close a loophole in the current law and make it easier to build cases against online harassers.
State Sen. Liz Krueger and state Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright were spurred to act after an incident this summer in which multiple women in Tudor City received unsolicited and unwanted text messages with sexually graphic images, allegedly from their building’s doorman.
The employee, who was believed to have had access to the women’s cellphone numbers, was fired by the co-op for abusing his position and sending the residents numerous pictures of his private parts, along with sexually explicit videos, over a period of several months, police said.
But though the alleged perpetrator was identified, no charges were filed against him, angering the women and calling legislators’ attention to a quirk of the state’s penal code that narrowly defines harassment in a way that fails to take into account evolving digital technology.
“Specifically, dirty unwanted text messages with sexually graphic images are not considered harassment under existing New York State law,” said Seawright, a co-sponsor of the bill whose district covers the East Side and Roosevelt Island.
To understand why, you have to go back to at least 1964, according to research by Krueger’s Albany office into the legislative history of a section of the state’s aggravated harassment law that her legislation would amend.
It was the era of rotary dial phones — and the “Ma Bell” monopoly over telephone service — and at that time, aggravated harassment in the second degree was codified as a Class A misdemeanor only in cases where a person “makes a telephone call” with “intent to harass or threaten another person.”A LAW THAT IS EONS OUT OF DATE
Since it was the pre-internet era, there was no provision for electronic communications and no online victims to protect.
Now, flash forward a half-century-plus. And absurdly, in today’s texting culture, where forms of harassment have evolved every bit as much as the technology itself, old-fashioned phone calls, when abusive, are still the evidentiary standard needed to find a party guilty under current aggravated harassment law.
Other prosecutorial remedies for similar abuses exist, of course, under several stalking, obscenity and disorderly conduct statutes.
But the Tudor City incident “highlighted the need to modernize our laws to address harassment by electronic means,” said Krueger, whose district takes in the East Side and Midtown East, including Tudor City.
Accordingly, on Aug. 15, after the New York Post brought the “dirty doorman case” to light, Krueger introduced her bill to broaden the offense of aggravated harassment so that the statute would include a person who “makes a telephone call, or contacts, via text, email or other electronic communication,” another person with intent to harass.
The law “should certainly treat unwanted harassing text messages such as this just as seriously as harassing phone calls,” Krueger said.
In the memo of support, written to attract elected officials from both parties to sign on as co-sponsors of the bill, the authors say the follow-up to the recent digital nightmare at Tudor City underscores the need to update the law.
“Law enforcement representatives indicated that under existing law, such communications could only be treated as harassment in the second degree, a violation,” the memo states. “Since violations can only be charged in cases where law enforcement witnesses the offense, no charges could be brought in this case.”
Updating the law — so that texts, emails and other electronic missives will fall under the same standard as phone calls — will provide prosecutors with better and more effective legal tools to clamp down on texting tormentors, the memo concludes.
“In this national climate, in the reality of the #MeToo movement, it is imperative that a progressive New York State amend its penal laws to reflect changing technology,” Seawright said. “We should take up the challenge to protect the citizenry.”