April 5, 2012 at 12:22 PM ET
Arizona totally isn't trying to outlaw being a horrible person on the Internet, according to at least one state legislator who earlier this week called anyone who read such implications into House Bill 2549 "tin-foil" hat-wearing members of the "black-helicopter" crowd.
Since posting that comment on the Phoenix New Times blog about the controversial "Internet Censorship Bill," State Represenative Vic Williams stepped back the trolling -- er -- comments on those who take an avid interest in the First Amendment. What's more, House Bill 2549, meant to curb electronic cyberbullying, harassment and stalking -– stalled in the wake of national criticism.
Bill sponsor Ted Vogt R.-Tuscon stopped H.B. 2549 after it was passed by both the Arizona House of Representatives and Senate, the Phoenix New Times reports:
While Rep. Williams still insists on calling at least some critics of HB 2549 "conspiracy theorists," he now tells the New Times that legislators have received "legitimate concerns" – which is why it's been pulled for further consideration.
The bill would make it a crime to use any electronic or digital device to communicate using "obscene, lewd or profane language," or to suggest a lewd or lascivious act, if done with the intent to "terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend." Charges for those found guilty could range from a Class 1 misdemeanor for nasty talk ($2,500 fine and up to six months in jail) to a Class 3 felony for stalking and intimidation (up to 25 years in jail for those with a record).
Troll a chat room – go to jail! That's how many fear such a bill could be interpreted by the legal system.
The New Times pointed to a succinct explanation of First Amendment concerns posted by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who runs the Volokh Conspiracy:
So, under the statute, posting a comment to a newspaper article -- or a blog -- saying that the article or post author is "f***ing out of line" would be a crime: It's said with intent to offend, it uses an electronic or digital device, and it uses what likely will be seen as profane language (see, e.g., City of Columbia Falls v. Bennett (Mont. 1991)). Likewise if a blog poster were to post the same in response to a commenter's comment. Likewise if someone posts something in response to an e-mail on an e-mail-based discussion list, or in a chatroom, or wherever else. (Note that if "profane" is read to mean not vulgarly insulting, but instead religiously offensive, see City of Bellevue v. Lorang (Wash. 2000), then the statute would be unconstitutional as well.)
As Suzanne Choney reported earlier this week, First Amendment rights group Media Coalition, which represents the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, the Association of American Publishers and other related groups, said the bill is not only a violation of the First Amendment, but is so far-ranging as to be preposterous.
In a letter to the governor, the coalition said while government can criminalize speech "that rises to the level of harassment, and many states have laws that do so," Arizona's 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.
Rep. Williams told the New Times that he's since had a long conversation with Media Coalition executive director David Horowitz and is willing to work with the group in refining the bill, which he still maintains, was never meant to outlaw trolling.
"We believed we were moving forward in good faith," Williams said.