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Appeals court considers whether harass law applies to faxes

December 18, 1997

BOSTON (AP) _ The messages were odd and seemed menacing.

Police thought they had a case of harassment. But a judge said it wasn’t a crime to swamp a Boston-area television station with fax messages, including one feared to be a bomb threat and another signed ``Son of Sam.″

The state Supreme Judicial Court is examining whether the Massachusetts law prohibiting harassing and annoying phone calls extends to fax machines.

James Richards of Attleboro was charged in April 1996 with making annoying telephone calls. Brookline District Court Judge Gordon Martin dismissed the case in October 1996, but prosecutors appealed.

The Supreme Judicial court is to hear arguments in the case on Jan. 8.

Richards allegedly wrote more than 20 faxes to WCVB-TV in Needham. Some were creative, bordering on strange. Then came one that worried station officials.

It read, ``A dead end leads to a live wire, and a live wire leads to a contact. When enough contacts are made, we have ignition. And liftoff? It’ll be a sight you won’t want to miss, especially if you’re in the front row.″

In an affidavit submitted for his case, Richards wrote, ``I sent some faxes to WCVB television at various times during 1996. I did not telephone WCVB or anyone at WCVB. The faxes were communications concerning my thoughts and beliefs. The faxes were not sent to annoy, harass or molest.″

Richards’ attorney argued that the state law making it a crime to harass people by telephone didn’t apply to fax machines.

``By its own terms, the statute specifically mentions telephone calls and does not mention other forms of communication, such as faxes, letters or electronic mail,″ Margaret Wermer said in court papers.

Prosecutors argued that a fax machine is ``simply a telephone which can transmit documents.″

Prosecutor Brett Harpster also disagreed with the lower court judge who had likened fax messages to mailed letters.

``Faxes are more similar to telephone calls than ordinary mail,″ Harpster argued.

``Fax telephone calls, like telephone calls containing oral communication, can harass, annoy or molest a person within the plain meaning″ of the law, Harpster wrote.

Harpster noted that in a Pennsylvania case, the courts said fax harassment was covered under a similar law prohibiting telephone harassment.

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