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AZ Bill That Could Criminalize Some Online Speech Being Revised Over Censorship Fears


"I don’t think it's right we should ever be able to threaten violence against each other online."

AZ State Legislature

Earlier this week, an Arizona bill that passed in both the House and Senate was strongly criticized for seeking to make it illegal to use obscene language or threaten harm to people or property using electronic devices. Opponents to the bill said the language was too broad and believed it would lead to Internet censorship. Legislators supporting the bill said intent behind the words used would decide the legality of them and therefore would not hamper free speech.

(Related: Anti-troll or censorship? AZ bill would criminalize harsh words on the Web)

Still, opposition was so strong that sponsors have said the bill will undergo clarifications before it attempts to earn the governor's signature again. Arizona House Bill 2549, prior to revisions, 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]

The Huffington Post reports free speech experts saying the proposed bill in its current form would violate First Amendment rights because of its vague definitions of what speech would be considered illegal:

“It could sweep a lot of potentially protected speech into the criminal sphere. I’m not sure what ‘obscene,’ ‘lewd’ or ‘profane' language is. Does that mean the law can be used to prosecute someone who forwards a bad joke?” said Roy Gutterman, the director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University. “The risk is that this heightened sensitivity can chill speech and cause people not to express themselves the way they might want to express themselves, even if it might offend someone.”

Earlier this week, Karen Winfield, assistant to state Sen. Sylvia Allen, explained in an email to the Blaze that most bad jokes would not be considered illegal. Here's what 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.

The Huffington Post goes on to reports the bill's sponsor Ted Vogt saying legislators intend to amend the bill to clarify that for some speech to be considered illegal, it would need to be in cases where “an individual is targeting another specific individual or group of individuals [...] coupled with a course of conduct.” Here's more from another legislator explaining the intent of the bill:

Rep. Steve Farley (D-Phoenix), a co-sponsor of the bill, said that the proposed legislation offers a much-needed defense against threatening speech online and would be used primarily in domestic abuse cases.

"I know people are focusing on unintended consequences of the bill, but I don’t think that's realistic," Farley said. "I think this is a wakeup call that we should be civil online and in society in general. I don’t think it's right we should ever be able to threaten violence against each other online."

CNN clarified Vogt saying for the speech to be considered illegal it would need to be "unwanted or unsolicited." He also said it would not apply to comment sections or forums such as Facebook walls, which many have been concerned about since news of the bill hit:

"With Facebook, you've got control over who your friends are," he said. "So if somebody is threatening you and you never de-friend them then you're not controlling it. You're inviting people to comment freely on your Facebook page. You can de-friend them and you can end the problem there."

Comments sections are the same, he said, since websites don't have to invite people to comment and can take down those sections if they are worried about threats.

Legislators supporting the bill have explained it is updating a pre-existing anti-stalking law to include new forms of electronic devices used in modern day -- prior to this the bill only specified "telephones." Even with the expected amendments to the updated bill, some are still concerned with broader implications. One of these is enforcement issues of electronic communication being sent into Arizona from sources outside of the state.

As of this posting, suggested the bill had not been updated to reflect reported revisions.

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