An Arizona bill would make it illegal to annoy or offend someone on the Internet, causing bloggers and other social media users to question the difference between freedom of expression and “trolling.”
House Bill 2549, sponsored by Tucson Republican Reps. Ted Vogt and Vic Williams, was originally intended to extend existing telephone harassment laws to digital devices, Vogt said.
The bill has passed both the House and Senate and is now in a conference committee for further amendment before being sent to Gov. Jan Brewer.
“New technology has developed a great deal since (the telephone harassment laws),” Vogt said. “We’re just acknowledging that in the year of 2012 people communicate in other ways than just by telephone.”
Vogt said the bill was sent to conference committee for clarification after media outlets and blogs reacted strongly to the bill, calling it a violation of a person’s constitutional right to be annoying or offensive.
Vogt said he is going to propose an amendment that will clarify the legislation.
“First, the communication that we’re talking about (in the bill) has to be unwanted or unsolicited,” Vogt said. “Second, we’re talking about a course of conduct where a person is contacting a certain individual.”
He said the amendment will also ensure rights provided by the Constitution are not violated by the bill’s content.
Williams said the “crazy people” who protest HB 2549 are intent on having “conspiracies.”
“People want to believe in the conspiracy that there’s some ‘big brother’ government that’s going to clamp down on them,” Williams said. “That doesn’t give you the right to harass or stalk someone using an electronic device.”
He said people go into “hyper defensive mode” when they’re told they can’t use the Internet.
“You have all sorts of wing nuts and conspiracy theorists coming out of the woodwork thinking that somehow this is going to restrict the usage of Internet activity,” Williams said. “It doesn’t do anything like that whatsoever.”
Law professor James Weinstein said the legislature was asking for trouble with the bill in its current state.
“People have First Amendment rights to use profanity and to annoy people,” Weinstein said. “If you write a blog defending Obamacare, and I want to tell you what a jerk you are, I have a First Amendment right to do that.”
He said though he’s concerned about the “lack of civility” on the Internet, people have a constitutional right to be “uncivil.”
“The (bill) is probably substantially overbroad and therefore may very well be unconstitutional,” Weinstein said.
He said Americans have a right to express views that could potentially annoy or offend someone.
“Americans have a right to use that (language) as public discourse,” Weinstein said. “Not every exchange on the Internet is public discourse, but part of it is.”
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Video by Yihyun Jeong