AZ Legislature Passes Bill to Censor Some Online Speech as It Relates to Bullying and Stalking

Internet trolls were discussed in 2006 at Wikipedia's Wikimania. With the continual rise in cyberbullying, legislators, like those in Arizona, are seeking to put a stop to some offensive speech on the Internet.

An Arizona bill has passed in state legislature to make online bullying and some other speech an illegal and punishable offense, but it has opponents saying if made into law it would set a precedent that would lead to online censorship.

(Related: This is what happened when the BBC confronted a ‘brutal, bigoted’ Facebook troll)

A local ABC News affiliate reports that the bill has not yet made it to the governor’s desk for a signature as it is “likely being reworked due to a public outcry.” Watch ABC 15′s report:

Arizona House Bill 2549 states:

“It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use a 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.” [Emphasis added]

If it were to become law, violators could be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor. The punishment becomes more weighty — a Class 3 felony — if any sort of stalking is involved. Gizmodo explains these punishments could mean up to six months in jail and a $250,000 fine (Class 1 misdemeanor), or a minimum of 2.5 years up to 25 years in jail (Class 3 felony).

The Phoenix Business Journal reports the bill is meant to update anti-stalking laws as they are related to telephone calls and to include the digital world.

Gizmodo, a tech blog frequently known as an advocate for free Internet, is against this law, which it calls an attack on one of the Internet’s basic tenants. It says it is a “dangerous” bill created by “legislators who fundamentally don’t understand the nature of the Internet”:

Opponents of the bill argue that the wording is overly broad and could easily be interpreted to include not just one-on-one communications but public forums like 4Chan, Reddit, and anywhere else that allows commenting. You thought the banhammer was bad? Try handcuffs.

It could also have a chilling effect on free speech by prohibiting shocking or “profane” language online. And since the bill stipulates that the offense only has to occur on Arizona soil (since a Facebook comment is definitely a geographic place, right?) that basically puts the entire Internet on notice.

ABC News 15 reports that while some have likened it to Internet censorship in China or Syria, Arizona House Minority Leader Chad Campbell says it isn’t an issue of censorship but increasing protection online against stalkers:

“This was not an attack on any First Amendment rights,” said Campbell while standing in the shadows of the state capitol. “I enjoy my First Amendment rights, just as you, this is not something we want and if it needs to be reworked a bit to ease concerns, we will do that.”

Campbell said he had fielded questions and calls from concerned people over the issue.

“You’ve seen some of the bullying problems we’ve had in high schools and grade schools across the country, Facebook posts attacking people, Twitter messages attacking people, we’re trying to update the stalking code to reflect the modern day,” said Campbell.

The bill’s opponents are both large and small. MSNBC reports Media Coalition – a First Amendment rights group that represents the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, the Association of American Publishers, among others — is one of the more major groups against the bill. It wrote in a letter to the Gov. Jan Brewer:

… takes a law meant to address irritating phone calls and applies it to communication on web sites, blogs, listserves and other Internet communication. H.B. 2549 is not limited to a one to one conversation between two specific people. The communication does not need to be repetitive or even unwanted. There is no requirement that the recipient or subject of the speech actually feel offended, annoyed or scared. Nor does the legislation make clear that the communication must be intended to offend or annoy the reader, the subject or even any specific person.

There is fear over where the line could be drawn for offensive words, such as satirical cartoons and political, economic or other cultural criticism.

Update: Karen Winfield, assistant to state Sen. Sylvia Allen, contacted the Blaze on Tuesday to provide some further clarification on the proposed changes to the existing law. Winfield wrote in an email that much of the proposed law is nothing new. Some of the changes simply include changing the word “telephone” to “any electronic or digital device.” She wrote that the phrase ”with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend” is a qualifier to the illegal act. She explained that using a phone in combination with obscenities or to make a threat would be considered an illegal act under the proposed changes. Winfield acknowledges that sometimes families and friends use obscene language or make threats over the phone, but it isn’t illegal. She wrote:

Sometimes people do make threats over the phone or Internet with friends or family, as in, “I will break your neck if you aren’t home by 10 p.m.” Is that illegal? No. Why? Because of the qualifier — “with the intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend.” The qualifier is the lynchpin that narrows down what is illegal to the actions of stalkers and harrassers.

Winfield emphasizes that it is the intent that matters with this law. For example, if someone called 50 times per day in the middle of the night and made threats, then it would be considered illegal with the proposed law because the intent behind the communication. 

With these clarifications, Winfield wrote, “It’s actually a pretty tame bill that simply updates our stalker/harassment laws to bring them in line with modern technology.  That’s why it got a unanimous vote in the Senate.”