The Lookout

Arizona lawmakers to review cyberbullying bill over free speech concerns

Liz Goodwin, Yahoo News
The Lookout

A troll doll. (Eraphernalia/Flickr)

Members of the Arizona House and Senate will review a recently passed anti-cyberstalking bill after critics raised concerns that it's so broad it could authorize arrests for online "trolls" who write mean comments on social media and news sites.

State Rep. Chad Campbell, a co-sponsor of the bill, told Yahoo News that lawmakers are trying "to address the constitutional concerns" raised by First Amendment advocates and are looking at making some changes. "This bill was only intended to go after people who are engaging in digital stalking, nothing more. If it can't be fixed to address the constitutional concerns then I will be voting no on it," he wrote in an email.

In March, Arizona politicians overwhelmingly voted to update an old statute that prohibited harassment and stalking by telephone to also include Internet communications, in an effort to combat cyberbullying. The new statute says it's illegal for anyone to use profane or lewd language on an electronic device with the intent to "terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend." The statute also makes it a crime for someone to infringe upon the "peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person" by "repeated anonymous electronic or digital communications."

One of the key problems with the statute, according to legal experts, is that the law is not limited to one-to-one communications, such as emails, Facebook messages or texts. That means someone's offensive tweets, comments or any other publicly available online words could fall under the law. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh writes that if someone uses profanity to insult the author of an online article in the article's section for comments, he or she could theoretically be prosecuted under this law. (So if you're in Arizona, think twice before cursing me out in the comments.)

But David Horowitz of the Media Coalition, a legal association that represents businesses' First Amendment interests, told Yahoo News that the bill could violate the First Amendment even if it is altered to apply only to one-to-one communications. Sending someone an offensive email containing profane or lewd words isn't necessarily a crime, he said. Digital messages must rise to the level of harassment or obscenity before they can be declared illegal.

Horowitz's group sent a letter to Gov. Jan Brewer after the bill passed on March 29 urging her to veto it because it "plainly violates the First Amendment." He said Jon Stewart's comedy routines, Rush Limbaugh's radio show, and even angry online banter among fans of rival sports teams could face prosecution if an Arizona resident were offended by their profanity or lewdness.

Arizona lawmakers have stopped the bill from going to Brewer's desk for now and plan to alter it.

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