Arizona’s legislature has passed some proposed amendments on Section 13-3916 of the State Statutes. The law has to do with stalking and harassment, and originally defined telephone harassment — generally a one-to-one communication that was deemed threatening or obscene.
The law has been revised with, essentially, a find-and-replace of “telephone” with “electronic or digital device,” without any thought given to how fundamentally different these forms of communication are. If signed by the governor, the revised law would potentially outlaw any speech on the internet determined by the government as being lewd, profane, threatening, or disturbing of the “peace, quiet, or right of privacy of any person.”
In this case, the law does not actually appear to be being twisted by an agenda to encompass certain communications, and appears to be a simple lack of due diligence by a host of ignorant lawmakers. It’s intended to extend existing stalking and harassment definitions to include cyberbullying and the like, which is of course a very reasonable and in fact admirable thing to do.
But with anything related to regulating online communications, old wording and definitions are rarely applicable. Criminalizing legitimate internet-based harassment is a good goal, but laws need to be written from the ground up to account for the very different nature of internet-based speech.
Media Coalition, a first-amendment rights advocacy organization, sums up the shortcoming succinctly in a letter to Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer:
…This legislation 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.
Speech protected by the First Amendment is often intended to offend, annoy or scare but could be prosecuted under this law.
It’s only a local provision for now, which may or may not be signed into law, but these things have a way of picking up steam and being replicated elsewhere, and once that happens — flaws like this are made to be exploited. To call it a censorship bill is mistaken; SOPA and PIPA were censorship bills, deliberately written with the end of shutting down problematic sites in mind. This, it appears, is just another example of the ignorance and laxity of our legislative bodies when it comes to the internet.