January 6, 2014 9:50AM

Criminalizing “Emotional Blackmail”

From Britain: “Domestic abuse involving ‘emotional blackmail’ – but no violence – could become a criminal offense carrying a heavy jail term under tough new measures published for the first time.” While the cross‐​party group of Members of Parliament who are introducing the bill do not speak for the Cameron administration, notes David Barrett in the Telegraph, they have a track record of some success at getting their ideas on domestic abuse enacted into legislation:

“Critically, its [the draft’s] definition of abuse includes “controlling or coercive behavior” which would “encompass but is not limited to physical, financial, sexual, psychological or emotional abuse”.

“Controlling behavior” would also lead to criminal charges, including when a partner makes another person “subordinate”, “exploits their resources” or “deprives them of the means needed for independence”.

The offense would apply to abuse committed against any spouse, partner or former partner, regardless of gender.

Offenses will carry a sentence of up to 14 years in prison. As Pamela Stubbart notes at the Daily Caller, when based on purely psychological and emotional interactions and states of dependence, concepts like “control” and “coercion” are at best a highly subjective affair, inviting unpredictable legal application as well as he‐​said‐​she‐​said legal battles in the wake of breakups or other relationship failures. The measure would also threaten criminal liability for some speech (e.g., emotionally hurtful insults not involving threats of violence) that would often be included in definitions of free speech. Meanwhile, a ban on exploiting partners’ resources or denying partners financial independence threatens to throw a shadow of criminal liability over many marital and romantic arrangements long deemed unproblematic, whether or not egalitarian. What’s most obviously “controlling or coercive” here is the proposed law itself.

Related: periodic proposals in state legislatures and elsewhere to ban “workplace bullying” (more) raise some of the same issues, as do enactments (like “Grace’s Law” in Maryland) endeavoring to ban “cyber‐​bullying.” [cross‐​posted and slightly adapted from Overlawyered]