A bipartisan bill designed to stop online bullying has raised the specter of Internet censorship. The well-intended legislation, which has already passed through Arizona’s legislature, is drafted in a way that many feel could stifle political satire, friendly sports trash-talking, and other everyday types of communication.
Arizona House Bill 2549 currently awaits the signature of Gov. Jan Brewer. It basically takes Arizona’s existing law against annoying, offensive, harassing and threatening phone calls and broadens it to encompass anything online.
Comedy Central’s Indecision blog, which has a personal and professional interest in free speech, noticed the law and remarked, “See if you can use your experience of having visited the comments section of any blog, on any site, at any time in the history of the Internet to spot potential problems in the legislation….”
Media Coalition, a trade group protecting the First Amendment rights of content industries, has been campaigning against the bill throughout the process. In a March 29 letter to Gov. Brewer it wrote: “Bill Maher’s stand up routines and Jon Stewart’s nightly comedy program, Ann Coulter’s books criticizing liberals and Christopher Hitchens’ expressions of his disdain for religion, Stephen King’s novels or the Halloween films all could be subject to this legislation. Even common taunting about sports between rival fans done online is frequently meant to offend or annoy, and is often done using salty and profane language.”
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh is another who is making his concerns known. Explaining that the bill amounts to censorship and may even be unconstitutional, he wrote on his Volokh Conspiracy blog that telephones communicate on a one-to-one basis, so an offensive phone call is probably intended to be offensive to the listener. “But computers used to post Facebook messages or send Twitter messages or post blog items can offend some listeners while persuading and informing others,” he pointed out.
The body of the bill reads: “It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use any electronic or digital device and use any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act, or threaten to inflict physical harm to the person or property of any person. It is also unlawful to otherwise disturb by repeated anonymous electronic or digital communications the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person at the place where the communications were received.”
Reps. Ted Vogt and Vic Williams, both R-Tucson, are the main sponsors of the bill, with support from House Minority Leader Chad Campbell (D-Phoenix), Assistant House Minority Leader Steve Farley (D-Tucson) and Rep. Terri Proud (R-Tucson).
Arizona House Bill 2549 – text of bill
Arizona House Bill 2549 – legislative history
Comedy Central’s Indecision – Arizona Bill Criminalizes Every Internet Comments Section, Ever
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund – Arizona Legislature Passes Sweeping Electronic Speech Censorship Bill
Phoenix Business Journal – Online bullying bill puts national spotlight on Arizona Legislature
Media Coalition – Arizona House Bill 2549: Bill to Censor Electronic Speech
Photo by Flickr user johnsnape, used under Creative Commons license