Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex
January 8, 2016.
action commenced in the Lowell Division of the District Court
Department on February 22, 2012.
special motion to dismiss was heard by Laurence D.
Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the
case from the Appeals Court.
J. Fencer for the defendant.
A. Pickett for the plaintiff.
Gants, C.J., Spina, Cordy, Botsford, Duffly, Lenk, &
N.E.3d 413] Botsford, J.
this case we first consider a procedural issue concerning the
appropriate forum to hear appeals from the allowance of a
special motion to dismiss under G. L. c. 231, § 59H
(§ 59H), the so-called " anti-SLAPP"
statute, by a judge in the District Court. This case also
requires us to evaluate the relationship between G. L. c.
258E, the statute governing civil harassment prevention
orders, and allegedly political speech. On the procedural
issue, we conclude that a party seeking to appeal from a
District Court order allowing or denying a special motion to
dismiss may file the appeal directly in the Appeals Court,
rather than in the Appellate Division of the District Court
Department (Appellate Division). We further conclude that
with one possible exception, the speech at issue here --
primarily concerning a local municipal election and more
generally issues of local public concern -- did not qualify
as either " fighting words" or " true
threats," see O'Brien v.
Borowski, 461 Mass. 415, 425, 961 N.E.2d 547 (2012),
and therefore, no civil harassment prevention order should
have issued in this case. In the circumstances presented,
Roland Van Liew established that Colleen Stansfield's
petition for a civil harassment prevention order was devoid
of factual support, that he had sustained injury, and that
Stansfield's special motion to dismiss Van Liew's
complaint for abuse of process and malicious prosecution
should have been denied.
Liew and Stansfield are both residents of Chelmsford (town).
Stansfield has been an elected member of the local planning
board since April, 2009. At the time of the events at issue
here, in 2012, Van Liew did not hold public office but was an
active participant in local civic and political affairs. Over
the years, Van Liew has disagreed publicly with many
positions taken by Stansfield on the planning board and in
her role supporting local political campaigns.
2012, Van Liew was a candidate for selectman in the town, and
on February 1, 2012, he held a public " meet and
greet" event at the town library in connection with his
candidacy. Stansfield attended the event and challenged
various positions taken by Van Liew during the discussion. At
the close of the event, Stansfield approached Van Liew and
asked whether he was going to take part in upcoming debates.
According to Stansfield, Van Liew responded loudly, "
[O]f course ... and I know what you do. ...
[Y]ou sent an anonymous [47 N.E.3d 414] letter to my wife and
I'm coming after you," to which Stansfield
responded, " [Y]ou are looking at a restraining
order," and left.
that day, after speaking with local police, Stansfield sought
in the District Court a harassment prevention order against
Van Liew pursuant to G. L. c. 258E, § 3. She alleged
four incidents of harassment in her complaint: (1) Van Liew
threatened Stansfield at the meet and greet event, where he
was " in [her] face" and told her he was "
coming after" her and she left shaking in fear; (2) Van
Liew sent several mailings in the past year calling
Stansfield corrupt and a liar; (3) during a recall election
in July, 2011, Van Liew again called her a liar and corrupt;
and (4) during their first interaction in a two-hour
telephone call initiated by Stansfield (that took place at
some point prior to 2009) Van Liew screamed at her and called
her " terrible names." A District Court judge held
an initial, ex parte hearing at which Stansfield testified;
the judge issued a temporary harassment prevention order
against Van Liew. The judge scheduled a full hearing on
Stansfield's request for a permanent order to take place
two weeks later, on February 15, 2012. Five days after the
temporary order issued, it was modified at Stansfield's
request to prevent Van Liew from mentioning Stansfield's
name in any " email, blog, [T]witter or any document
through [I]nternet, television show, ad or otherwise."
On February 15, 2012, the scheduled hearing on
Stansfield's request for an order took place before a
different District Court judge. It was attended by
Stansfield, who represented herself, and Van Liew,
represented by counsel. Stansfield testified about the verbal
exchange at Van Liew's meet and greet event, and further
testified that, in the past, Van Liew had called Stansfield
" corrupt and a liar" with regard to her work on
the planning board, specifically pointing to two electronic
mail (e-mail) messages written by Van Liew, one of which
Stansfield read to the judge. The e-mail message appears to
mention Stansfield twice by name but goes on at great length
to provide highly critical commentary about certain
development projects that were being proposed for
the town pursuant to G. L. c. 40B and other
programs. The judge concluded that she could not
find the requisite three acts of harassment for a harassment
prevention order under G. L. c. 258E and that some of the
acts alleged by Stansfield were political speech, not
threatening in ...