What Type of Behavior Is Considered Harassment in Massachusetts?

Woman looking at phone reading harassing text messages in Massachusetts.

In Massachusetts, behavior considered harassment under 258E includes:

  1. Repetitive Conduct: Frequent, unwanted contact that causes fear or distress.
  2. Threats: Any communication or action that implies harm, physically or emotionally.
  3. Stalking: Repeatedly following, watching, or monitoring someone without consent.
  4. Unwanted Contact: Any form of communication or interaction after being asked to stop.
  5. Sexual Harassment: Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.

Any behavior causing fear, intimidation, or emotional distress can warrant a harassment prevention order under 258E in Massachusetts.

Understanding Harassment and 258E Harassment Prevention Orders in Massachusetts

In Massachusetts, the legal framework for addressing harassment outside of domestic relationships is detailed in Chapter 258E of the General Laws. This statute not only defines what constitutes harassment but also outlines the process for obtaining a Harassment Prevention Order. This guide explores the types of behavior considered harassment, the application of 258E Harassment Prevention Orders, and what does not qualify as harassment under this law.

What Constitutes Harassment
in Massachusetts?

Legal Definition of Harassment

Under Massachusetts law, harassment is defined through several criteria that must be met for behavior to be legally recognized as such. These include:

  • Three or More Incidents: The behavior must involve three or more separate acts that are willful and malicious, aimed specifically at causing fear, intimidation, abuse, or damage to property.
  • Forced Sexual Relations: Acts that involve forcing someone to engage in sexual relations through force, threat, or duress also constitute harassment.
  • Criminal Acts: Any behavior that can be classified as a criminal act against a person, such as stalking, physical assault, or systematic threats, is considered harassment.

These behaviors must specifically target the victim and must be intended to—and actually do—cause fear, intimidation, abuse, or damage to property.

Types of Harassment Covered

Harassment can manifest in various forms, including but not limited to:

  • Physical and Verbal Harassment: Unwanted physical contact or threatening, abusive, or demeaning words.
  • Stalking: Repeatedly following someone to or from work or their home, showing up uninvited, or watching someone without their consent.
  • Online Harassment: Using social media, email, or other digital platforms to harass someone through disparaging messages, public shaming, or spreading false information.

What is NOT Considered Harassment Under a
258E Order?

Not all negative or unpleasant interactions constitute legal harassment under Chapter 258E. The law is specific in its requirements to ensure that the term “harassment” is not applied too broadly, potentially infringing on freedom of speech or normal social interactions. Here are some key examples and explanations of what is generally not considered harassment under this statute:

Casual or Offhand Comments

Isolated remarks or comments that are offensive or distasteful do not usually meet the threshold for harassment unless they are part of a broader pattern of conduct that is aimed at causing fear or intimidation. Single incidents, unless exceptionally severe and threatening, typically do not qualify as harassment under the law.

Legitimate Business or Educational Actions

Actions taken in the normal course of business or education, such as performance reviews, disciplinary measures, or academic evaluations, are not considered harassment, even if the recipient may feel that they are harsh or unjustified. These actions must be justifiable on professional or educational grounds and executed in a manner consistent with standard practices.

Social or Political Commentary

Expressions of political opinions or participation in social debates, even if robust and strongly worded, are not classified as harassment. This protection ensures that free speech is not unduly stifled. However, if such expressions include direct threats of violence, repeated targeting of an individual in a way that constitutes stalking or abuse, or other actions that cross the line into criminal behavior, they may then be considered harassment.

Consensual Interactions

Interactions that are consensual, where all parties are willing participants, even if later regretted, do not constitute harassment. Consent is a crucial factor in determining whether an interaction is lawful or not.

Normal Social Interactions

Everyday social interactions that might include joking, teasing, or bantering are typically not seen as harassment. The intent behind these interactions, their frequency, and the response they elicit are significant factors. Behavior that is generally acceptable and welcome among the participants is unlikely to be viewed as harassment.

Offensive Language Protected by the First Amendment

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides broad protection to speech, including offensive language, to uphold the principle of free expression. It is important to understand the extent and limitations of this protection, especially in contexts where language might be offensive but still legally permissible.

Scope of Protection

The First Amendment protects most speech, including:

  • controversial,
  • unpopular, or
  • disturbing expressions.

This protection ensures that individuals can freely express their opinions without fear of government censorship or punishment, promoting a marketplace of diverse ideas and opinions. However, not all forms of speech are protected. The law excludes certain categories of speech, such as true threats, fighting words, and obscenity, which are not covered under the First Amendment due to their potential to cause harm or immediate breach of peace.

Impact on Harassment Claims

In harassment cases, especially those involving verbal conduct, the distinction between protected speech and harassment can be nuanced. Offensive language that does not fall into an unprotected category is generally not actionable as harassment. For instance, offensive comments related to political beliefs or general insults that do not incite immediate violence or threaten someone’s safety are protected.

Unprotected Speech: Fighting Words and True Threats

While the First Amendment covers a wide range of speech, certain types of expressions, such as fighting words and true threats, do not receive protection and can qualify as harassing language under legal standards, including those set forth in Chapter 258E.

Fighting Words

Fighting words are defined as words which “by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of peace.” These are words that are personally abusive and, when directed at an ordinary person, are likely to provoke violent reactions. Fighting words must be directed at a specific individual and not conveyed through the media or other forms of public broadcast. Examples include direct personal insults, epithets, or slurs that could provoke a violent response from an average recipient under the circumstances in which they are spoken.

True Threats

True threats are another category of unprotected speech. These involve statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals. The standard here is whether the speech, in its context, would have a reasonable tendency to create apprehension in a person who is targeted by the threat. True threats are not limited to threats of physical harm but can also include threats of harm to property or reputation if they meet the criteria for inciting fear of harm.

Legal Implications in Harassment Cases

Understanding the distinctions between protected speech and unprotected expressions such as fighting words and true threats is crucial for effectively navigating the legal landscape around harassment. In Massachusetts, under Chapter 258E, for language to be considered part of actionable harassment, it must typically fall into one of these unprotected categories and contribute to a pattern of targeted behavior that causes:

  • fear,
  • intimidation,
  • abuse, or
  • damage to property.

 

It is also important for individuals and legal practitioners to consider the context in which words are spoken. Language that might be offensive but is part of a larger, rational discourse or debate does not typically constitute harassment. However, repeated use of offensive language that is directed at a specific person and intended to intimidate or threaten can cross the line into harassment, particularly when it forms part of a broader pattern of prohibited conduct.

Importance of Context
and Pattern

It is essential to understand that the context and the pattern of behavior are critical in determining harassment. Massachusetts law requires a pattern of behavior or severe single incidents that clearly cause:

  • fear,
  • intimidation,
  • abuse, or
  • damage to property.

 

Thus, sporadic or minor incidents, which do not form a pattern and are not part of a broader campaign of targeted behavior, generally do not meet the legal definition of harassment under Chapter 258E.

By distinguishing between actual harassment and other forms of interaction, Chapter 258E aims to protect individuals from serious abuse while respecting rights such as freedom of expression and normal social or professional conduct. Understanding these distinctions helps individuals better navigate their rights and responsibilities concerning harassment allegations.

Application of 258E Harassment Prevention Orders

Seeking Protection

Victims of harassment in Massachusetts can seek a Harassment Prevention Order under Chapter 258E, which is applicable to a broader range of situations than domestic violence restraining orders. This is particularly significant for individuals harassed by non-family members or acquaintances.

Filing a Petition

To file for a Harassment Prevention Order, a victim must:

  • Document the harassment with evidence such as messages, emails, witness statements, or police reports.
  • File a petition in a district, superior, or probate and family court in Massachusetts.
  • Attend a hearing where both the petitioner and the accused can present their cases.

 

If the court finds sufficient evidence of harassment, it may issue a temporary order immediately, typically valid until the full hearing.

Enforcement and
Legal Consequences

Enforcement of Harassment Prevention Orders

Once a Harassment Prevention Order is granted, it must be strictly adhered to by your harasser. Violations of the order are criminal offenses and can result in arrest and prosecution. Common provisions in the orders include no contact directives and restrictions on approaching or visiting certain locations.

Penalties for Violation

Violating a Harassment Prevention Order can lead to serious penalties, including fines and imprisonment. The enforcement of these orders is intended to provide real protection for the victims and consequences for the violators.

Help Getting a Restraining Order in Massachusetts

If you’d like help getting a Restraining Order without paying an expensive attorney, we can help. With our Legal Coaching we can walk you through every step to make sure you’re ready for your hearing. The first thing to do is see if you qualify for a Massachusetts Restraining Order. Click on the link below to see if you qualify for either type of Restraining Order.

Protecting You Through the Law

Chapter 258E in Massachusetts serves as a crucial legal mechanism to protect you from harassment. By understanding what behaviors constitute harassment and how to navigate the legal process, you can effectively seek protection and ensure your safety and peace of mind. Meanwhile, it is also important for individuals to recognize what does not constitute harassment to better understand your rights and obligations under the law.

Legal Disclaimer

This article is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult with an attorney to discuss your specific circumstances and receive tailored guidance.

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