There was a peculiar little article in the local paper today that caught my eye because earlier this week I was pondering as I wrote about the fires whether I was correctly using the word "offshore" to describe winds that come from the desert rather than the ocean. I even checked online to make sure my usage was correct. Well it turns out, according to a professor at a local community college, that the terms onshore and offshore are used by local weather broadcasters in a manner such that we are all confused and to our healths' detriment. Indeed this professor was so vociferous about the usage by one local TV person, Fritz Coleman, that the court issued a restraining order to prevent her from contacting Coleman. When she continued writing more emails to Coleman, she was held in contempt and faces time in the slammer (which may be waived if she leaves Coleman alone for the next 6 months until she is sentenced).
This story, assuming it is accurate, raises some interesting questions about when obsession becomes criminal, when speech is not protected and when common usage of a term undoes the meaning ascribed by academics. Is it and should it be against the law to act crazy and send repeated emails to someone to make a particular point about an issue (leaving aside the issue of spam which has and can be stopped by constitutional narrowly tailored antispam laws)? When does writing letters become stalking and when does the recipients subjective fear become the basis for a restraining order. Coleman apparently was spooked by all the emails from the professor and by an interaction with her at Knott's Berry Farm, where she claims she ran into him by coincidence, not by plan. I think the restraining order in this case violates the First Amendment as applied to the communications if in fact there were only one in person interaction after the emails (she apparently met him at an AMS meeting and started writing to him thereafter) and the rest were emails. The professor's continuing to contact Coleman, however, after the order was entered, reveals either hubris or ignorance, neither of which is an excuse.
You can judge for yourself whether the professor is a bit dotty on this issue or criminally liable. Here is her blog response on the subject.