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Liew v. Stansfield

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Middlesex

March 30, 2016

Roland Van Liew
Colleen Stansfield

         Argued January 8, 2016.

          Civil action commenced in the Lowell Division of the District Court Department on February 22, 2012.

         A special motion to dismiss was heard by Laurence D. Pierce, J.

         The Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the case from the Appeals Court.

         Michael J. Fencer for the defendant.

         Karen A. Pickett for the plaintiff.

         Present: Gants, C.J., Spina, Cordy, Botsford, Duffly, Lenk, & Hines, JJ.


          [47 N.E.3d 413] Botsford, J.

          In 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

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(§ 59H), the so-called " anti-SLAPP" [1] 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.


          Van 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.

         In 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. ...

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[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.[3]

         Later 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.[4] 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

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the town pursuant to G. L. c. 40B and other programs.[5] 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 ...

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