Conservative Arizona governor Jan Brewer may soon place her signature on a bill that criminalizes “annoying” or “offensive” online comments in her state.
The bill, according to its creators, aims to protect victims of online harassment and stalking. Critics, however, suggest the language of the bill is too broad and will violate Arizona citizens’ constitutional right to free speech, which usually applies even if the speech in question is intended to offend or to annoy.
The bill makes it “unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use a telephone 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,” according to The Examiner.
“I don’t think they’re trying to be like China,” says James Weinstein, a professor of constitutional law at Arizona State University. “Now that they're extending it to the Internet generally or electronic media generally, it loses that natural limitation to targeted individuals. I think this is just bad drafting.”
The Media Coalition has asked Governor Brewer to veto the bill, but Brewer has not publicly commented on the matter. “Somebody who posts on their Facebook (News - Alert) page and they happen to be an Arizona Diamondbacks fan ... whoever their rivals are, they can say ‘Hey your team stinks, and I hope you lose,’” said David Horowitz, the Media Coalition’s executive director. “Is that intent to offend or annoy? There’s a lot of common banter this would potentially apply to.”
Defenders of the bill, including Republican representative Vic Williams, says the bill would protect victims of online harassment whose cases have dismissed in court because current state stalking laws only cover physical and telephone stalking.
“There’s a bona fide need to protect people from one-on-one harassment,” Williams told the Associated Press (News - Alert). He dismissed claims from so-called “crackpots and conspiracy theorists” who attempt to paint the law as an attempt to crack down on freedom of expression.
A person convicted under the new statute, if Governor Brewer signs it, could face up to 25 years in prison in addition to civil penalties.
Edited by Braden Becker