Online, “being a teenager in love” might now be a legal defense

Teenagers are especially vulnerable to what Romeo called “a madness most discreet.”
Teenagers are especially vulnerable to what Romeo called “a madness most discreet.”
Image: AP Photo/Joseph Nair
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“We hold that unrequited teenage love is not a crime, and is not elevated to a crime by the disapproval, and even annoyance, of the object of the erstwhile lover’s affections, or by that of her father.”

The People of the State of New York v. Isaiah Rodriguez

That’s but one of a string of remarkable passages from a just-surfaced 2008 decision handed down by a court in New York state, where an 18-year-old had been accused of criminal harassment because he wouldn’t stop pestering a 14-year-old girl on the social network Myspace. Incredibly, the same decision references the science of teenage love, and specifically the parallels between puppy-love and “hypomania,” a mental state in which teenagers tend to be more impulsive and exercise poor judgement.

The decision also cites a remarkable body of case law that defines harassment online and off, and is itself a fascinating example of how judges have had to get creative in the face of new communications technologies, and especially social networks. Here are the takeaways:

1. If someone sends messages online that resemble harassment, and the recipient doesn’t block or unfriend the person sending those messages, this can constitute evidence that those messages weren’t really harassment.

From the court’s decision:

“At any time, a MySpace user may remove friends from his or her network, or may block unwanted communications. (Id.) Thus, while it is reasonable to assume that, at some point, complainant added the defendant under his nom de plume “looking4therightoneinmylife” to her list of friends, the complaint contains no allegations that complainant attempted to quell defendant’s love by blocking defendant’s messages or by asking him to cease writing her.”

2. The First Amendment right to free speech broadly protects Americans’ right to express their adoration for someone else online and elsewhere.

This applies even when it’s unrequited and creepy. The court writes:

“The complaint before us […] merely alleges that the defendant, who was then 18 years old, told the 14-year-old complainant that he loved her, and told her to come away with him over the objections of her father. We decline to find that a teenager’s attempt to woo another teenager, albeit misguided and clumsy, constitutes endangering the welfare of that child.”

3. Modern neuroscience and Shakespeare agree on this: Teens are crazy.

In something resembling the insanity defense, the court suggested that simply being a teenager may excuse a defendant’s behavior, especially when it bolster’s the argument that he or she is professing his or her love rather than communicating an intent to harm another.

“When teenagers fall in love, as song lyrics and studies show, they are more likely to exhibit almost manic behaviors, take risks, act compulsively, and sometimes pursue, with reckless abandon, the objects of their affection.”

That passage of the court’s decision references a 2007 article from New Scientist, “Puppy love makes teenagers lose the plot,” which notes:

“Adolescents who claim they are “madly in love” might not be too far off the mark: a new study suggests that they show almost manic behaviours. […]  Lovestruck teenagers showed many behaviours resembling “hypomania” – a less intense form of mania. For example, they required about an hour less sleep each night […] They were also more likely to report acting compulsively, [and] they were also more likely to say they drove fast and took risks on the road.”

Of course, this particular teenager also showed up at the home of the 14-year-old girl with whom he was obsessed, and criminal trespass is criminal trespass. New and more comprehensive cyberstalking laws aside, the lesson is clear. If you want to awkwardly declare your undying love for people, do it on social media—at least until they block you.