US judges are grappling with the implications of a workplace email hacking case that led to the suicide of a local official.
Christopher Baron, 33, an emergency medical technician from Wisconsin, allegedly hacked into the email account of EMS Director Mark Fisher back in August 2006. Messages suggesting Fisher was engaged in an extra-marital affair were compiled and distributed to people in the local community of Jefferson, Wisconsin under the subject line "What Mark's Been Up To". Fisher's wife was among those sent copies of the messages.
Fisher killed himself the next day, according to local court reports.
Baron faces a slew of charges including computer hacking and identity theft. He admits sending the messages but denies serious felony offences.
Lawyers acting for Baron objected to the identity theft charge. Defence lawyers also claimed Baron enjoyed first amendment (free speech) exemptions in criticising a public official in a series of objections that put the case on hold, pending a legal ruling about whether their client had a case to answer.
These arguments convinced a circuit judge but have since been rejected by more senior judges.
Wisconsin's Supreme Court last week uphold an appeal court ruling that state laws made it criminal to use personal information (in this case access to an email account) to impersonate someone and spread malicious gossip.
"This is one of those rare cases that a government regulation survives strict scrutiny," Justice Annette Ziegler wrote. "The statute does not prevent Baron from revealing the reputation-harming information as long as the method chosen does not entail Baron pretending to be Fisher."
"The state has shown beyond a reasonable doubt that (the statute), as applied to Baron, is narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest and does not violate Baron's constitutional right to freedom of speech."
The ruling allows the prosecution of Baron to proceed. The state originally filed defamation charges against Baron, but these have since been dropped, the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel reports. ®