The Rhode Island Superior Court yesterday overturned a misdemeanor conviction for John A. Leidecker, a top teachers union official who mocked and impersonated a state lawmaker during the 2010 primary.
Leidecker, an assistant executive director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island, was busted in 2010 for sending emails mocking former state Rep. Douglas W. Gablinske on a number of political issues.
The messages were sent from an email account of Doug Gablinski, and detailed exchanges between the imposter and a fictional person, Walter Flatus, in which the union official misrepresented the lawmaker’s position on bridge tolls, school funding and union contract issues. Gablinske contends Leidecker’s musings, which he forwarded to the lawmaker, caused him to lose the primary, as well as many restless nights, the Providence Journal reports.
Leidecker was found guilty of cyberstalking by District Court Judge Stephen M. Isherwood in 2011 and ordered to pay a $100 fine for the misdemeanor conviction, but the union boss appealed the decision to the state’s Superior Court.
This week, Judge Susan E. McGuirl ruled the mocking and harassing emails were protected political speech under the First Amendment, and overturned the lower court’s ruling, the news site reports.
“The language in the emails, while annoying, did not rise to the level of threatening, she said. She also could not find that it was without any legitimate purpose as it addressed issues up for political debate at the time, she said,” according to the Journal.
Gablinske, of course, didn’t take the ruling lightly.
“Mr. Leidecker never denied the charges and freely admitted in court that he did send me these harassing and stalking emails, but contends that he has a constitutional right, under free speech to harass and stalk,” Gablinske, who did not attend the court proceeding, said in a statement.
“The fact that I was an elected official does not mean someone can stab me, kill me or harass me; they have no constitutional rights to do so and those actions are not protected under our constitutional rights to free speech, which makes this decision by Judge McGuirl all the more egregious.”
State lawmakers seemed to agree with Gablinske, and have passed legislation to specifically address online impersonation since the incident, the Journal reports.
“The General Assembly passed and Governor Chafee signed legislation, filed at the request of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, making it a felony for someone to use the name or persona of another or a public official to create a webpage, post messages on a social networking site or send electronic communications, without the person’s consent, with intent to harm or defraud,” according to the news site.
Leidecker, who was promoted by the union during the controversy, still maintains that he did nothing wrong or illegal, and wasn’t responsible for Gablinske losing the 2010 primary.
“This was basically just because I criticized a political posture,” he said.
But just because someone can impersonate a lawmaker, misrepresent their positions, and mock and harass them, doesn’t mean they should. This union official’s behavior is precisely the type of underhanded tactics that erode the public’s confidence in teachers unions, and it’s far too common during the election season.
As Gablinske pointed out, the message this ruling sent “to all Rhode Islanders … and the schoolchildren of this state, would encourage, rather than punish, these types of intimidating and illegal actions,” he wrote.