Ninth Circuit Revives Fight of Washington Cyberstalking Law

SEATTLE (CN) – A blogger challenging Washington state’s cyberstalking law – which prohibits actions that harass, intimidate, torment or embarrass people – can pursue his claims in federal court, the Ninth Circuit ruled Friday.

Richard Rynearson III, an activist accused of harassing local civic leaders critical of the National Defense Authorization Act, filed a federal case challenging the constitutionality of the cyberstalking law at the same time he was appealing a municipal court protection order.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton dismissed the federal challenge last year, citing Younger v. Harris which bars federal court interference in ongoing state court proceedings.

A three-judge appellate panel found Rynearson’s federal constitutional challenge to the statute would not affect his state court appeal.

“Although conduct in violation of that statute can be (and was, in Rynearson’s case) a partial basis for issuing a protection order, the criminal statute’s constitutionality does not bear on the validity of the state’s protection orders or the procedures by which the state courts issue or enforce them. We therefore conclude that Rynearson’s suit did not involve Washington’s interest in enforcing the orders and judgments of its courts,” U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Clifton wrote in the unanimous decision.

Even if the cyberstalking law were declared unconstitutional, the protection order against Rynearson was based on other forms of stalking conduct and harassment, the panel held.

“Moreover, even if the federal action did cast doubt on the validity of the terms of the stalking protection order, Rynearson still would not be able to use any federal determination about the cyberstalking statute’s constitutionality as a defense in a contempt proceeding. A party cannot use a challenge to the validity of a court order as a defense in a proceeding for violation of that order under Washington law,” Clifton wrote.

The panel reversed the dismissal, sending the case back to Leighton for further proceedings.

U.S. Circuit Judge Jacqueline Nguyen and U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, sitting by designation from the Southern District of New York, rounded out the panel.

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