A divided Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the nation's first felony conviction for illegal spamming on Friday, ruling that Virginia's anti-spamming law does not violate free-speech rights.
Jeremy Jaynes of Raleigh, N.C., considered among the world's top 10 spammers in 2003, was convicted of massive distribution of junk e-mail and sentenced to nine years in prison.
Almost all 50 states have anti-spamming laws. In the 4-3 ruling, the court rejected Jaynes' claim that the state law violates both the First Amendment and the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution.
"This is a historic victory in the fight against online crime," state Attorney General Bob McDonnell said in a written statement. "Spam not only clogs e-mail inboxes and destroys productivity; it also defrauds citizens and threatens the online revolution that is so critical to Virginia's economic prosperity."
Justice Elizabeth Lacy wrote in a dissent that the law is "unconstitutionally overbroad on its face because it prohibits the anonymous transmission of all unsolicited bulk e-mail including those containing political, religious or other speech protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution."
Jaynes allegedly used aliases and false Internet addresses to bombard Web users with junk e-mails peddling sham products and services. The court's majority said misleading commercial speech is not entitled to First Amendment protection.
"Unfortunately, the state that gave birth to the First Amendment has, with this ruling, diminished that freedom for all of us," Jaynes' lawyer, Thomas M. Wolf, said in a written statement. "As three justices pointed out in dissent, the majority's decision will have far reaching consequences. The statute criminalizes sending bulk anonymous e-mail, even for the purpose of petitioning the government or promoting religion."
Prosecutors presented evidence of 53,000 illegal e-mails Jaynes sent over three days in July 2003. But authorities believe he was responsible for spewing 10 million e-mails a day in an enterprise that grossed up to $750,000 per month.
Jaynes was charged in Virginia because the e-mails went through an AOL server in Loudoun County, where America Online is based.
The court rejected Jaynes' claim that Virginia's law violates the interstate commerce clause because it regulates activity outside Virginia. Justice Steven Agee wrote that "the effects of this statute on interstate commerce are incidental and do not impose an undue burden."