Arizona Passes State Bill That Would ‘Censor Any Offensive’ Remarks On The Internet

Arizona, the Dry County of Free Speech (Technorati, April 4, 2012):

Arizona, Here we go again…

With all the decorum of a bar fight, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was captured wagging a finger in the face of President Obama last January.  Less than 6 months later we now have the conservative state legislature presenting the Governor with a bill that has the potential to censor Internet speech.

Proposed as an anti-bullying measure added to current stalking legislation, HB 2549 now on the Governor’s desk states…

Section 13-2916, Arizona Revised Statutes, is amended to  read:

Use of an electronic or digital device to terrify,  intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend;

Opponents of the bill cite a dangerous ambiguity concerning the terms “annoy or offend” which would empower the state to function as a de-facto censor for all forms of communication deemed offensive or annoying.  That includes the Internet with the penalty being a Class 1 Misdemeanor.

It should be noted that the original text of the bill cited “telephone call” as the protected medium but was struck and replaced simply with the terms “Communications” and “Electronic or Digital Device.”  As with SOPA/PIPA this may be another example of government misunderstanding the effect of their legislation on the medium and the First Amendment in general.  If passed Arizona could become a virtual “dry county” for free speech.

The bill’s relatively short length (1.5 pages) fails to define the scope or moderating agency responsible for enforcement which potentially leaves it’s interpretation broad, ambiguous and subjective.  With such a measure signed into law, opposing political and social viewpoints could be curtailed by simply claiming they are offensive or annoying.

Proponents cite the need for broadening the stalking provisions of the current statute to protect individuals online from bullying.

Perhaps the most amusing outcome should the Governor sign the bill into law is the ability to censor the speech of any individual or group deemed offensive or annoying.  That includes the Governor herself as her wagging finger could be deemed offensive.

Arizona law looks to censor the internet (ABC 4, April 2, 2012):

An Arizona bill being touted as an anti-bullying effort has people across the nation up in arms. The “internet censorship bill” would make it a crime for someone to be “offensive” online. While it has good intentions it’s so broad, online editorials, illustrations, even your Facebook status updates aren’t safe.

– Arizona passes state bill that would ‘censor any offensive’ remarks on the internet (Daily Mail, April 2, 2012):

A bill that passed in the Arizona state legislature could pose a major threat to freedom of speech in the state as it bans anything deemed ‘offensive’ that is published online.

Though it started as an attempt to curb online bullying, opponents see it as a major violation of the First Amendment.

The bill would ‘make unlawful any misuse of electronic or digital devices to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy, or offend in the course of stalking.’

‘It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use 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.

‘It is also unlawful to otherwise disturb by repeated anonymous electronic or digital communications the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person at the place where the communications were received.’

The bill, known as House 2549, passed on March 29 and is bound next for the governor’s office.

The New York-based civil liberties activist group called Media Coalition has actively fought against the passage of the bill because, if turned to law, it could criminally prosecute authors of editorials or satirical cartoons that are thought to qualify as offensive.

‘It’s a well-intentioned view and I can see what they have in mind,’ Media Coalition executive director David Horowitz told MailOnline.

‘This is way too broad: it could mean if you’re getting spammed, or annoyed. There’s no requirement that it be repetitive, or that it has to be one-on-one, there’s nothing!’

The group has sent a bevy of letters to Arizona governor Jan Brewer in an attempt to get her to veto the bill before it becomes law.

Though it was initially sponsored by two Republicans in the state legislature, the bill now has bi-partisan support and faced little opposition before it was approved.

Other states have had similar propositions, all of which have come in the form of extensions of existing laws against stalking, but they have not passed.

Bullying and the issues surrounding mean Facebook comments and texts have come up in recent months after a number of young children across the country killed themselves.

‘There’s a genuine concern about harassment and bullying both in person and online, and that is a serious topic, but this bill is just far too broad and has no limitations so it infringes on the freedom of speech,’ Mr Horowitz told MailOnline.

Arizona’s ‘Annoy Someone, Go to Jail’ Bill in Limbo (AVN News, April 3, 2012):

The bill, which would amend current statutes, levies a Class 1 misdemeanor charge against anyone convicted of the following violations:

It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use 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. It is also unlawful to otherwise disturb by repeated anonymous ELECTRONIC OR DIGITAL COMMUNICATIONS the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person at the place where the COMMUNICATIONS were received.

“Naturally, readers of this blog know that I am no fan of using obscene, lewd, or profane language with intent to annoy or offend people,” wrote Volokh. “But, given the First Amendment, the government may not restrict such speech on blogs, e-mail discussion lists, and newspaper Web sites. If the Arizona Legislature wants to apply the [existing] ban on telephone harassment to other one-to-one devices, such as text messaging or e-mails sent directly to a recipient, it may well be free to do so. But the just-passed bill has no such limitation, and thus poses the danger of restricting a great deal of speech that is protected by the First Amendment.”

Arizona law would censor the Internet (MSNBC, April 2, 2012):

The state of Arizona could find itself in the company of countries like China and Syria for censoring the Internet if the state’s governor signs a bill recently passed by the legislature.

Arizona House Bill 2549, which is now on Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk for signature, was created to counter bullying and stalking. The law 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.”

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, says 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.

This bill isn’t the first the legislature has tackled when it comes to regulating what’s said — or seen — electronically. Another, Senate Bill 1219, would let parents see the text messages on the phones of their children, if they’re under the age of 18. That legislation remains in committee.

H.B. 2549 “would apply to the Internet as a whole, thus criminalizing all manner of writing, cartoons, and other protected material the state finds offensive or annoying,” Media Coalition says on its website — at least for now, until what it says is found to be offensive or annoying by those in Arizona.

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