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Arizona ‘cyberbullying’ bill threatens free speech online, critics warn

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Bullying has suddenly shot to the forefront of American politics, and has simmered into a hotbed of recent discussion. The debate has become so widespread that it has motivated Arizona’s lawmakers to take action. Unfortunately, critics say the state may have just unleashed one of the worst Internet censorship bills in American history.

On Thursday, the Arizona legislation passed amendments to Arizona House Bill 2549, sending the bill to the governor’s desk for approval or veto. The controversial amendments revise the state’s telephone harassment law to apply to a wide variety of crude language transmitted over “any electronic or digital communications.” Of course, this category includes landline phones, mobile phones, television, tablets, radio and, yes, the Internet.

The amended part of H.B. 2549 reads as follows:

“It is 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. It is also unlawful to otherwise disturb by repeated anonymous telephone calls ELECTRONIC OR DIGITAL COMMUNICATIONS the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person at the place where the telephone call or calls COMMUNICATIONS were received.”

The bill’s effort is perhaps good-intentioned — but it’s also woefully flawed. Yes, cyberbullying has time and again been at the crux of countless teenage suicide cases, with many occurring on social networking sites, including Facebook, Twitter and Myspace. But if you look at the bill closely, it’s a jarringly ill-constructed form of legislation, riddled with holes. Due to the bill’s broadness, critics warn that it can be used implicate just about anyone who uses “lewd or profane language,” or says anything that is intended to “terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy, or offend” anyone over an electronic communication. In short, this could make much of the things people say online illegal in the state of Arizona.

If passed, the legislation will apply to any implicating language that was sent or posted in the state of Arizona, or directed at an individual in the state of Arizona. While it is most likely that authorities will only pursue cases where individuals are maliciously targeted, a growing chorus of critics argue that the bill’s broad language poses a threat to the First Amendment, which provides US citizens with a Freedom of Religion, Freedom of the Press, and Freedom of Expression. The bill is worded so dangerously, in fact, that even organizations that supported the contentious Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) have come out against the legislation.

“Speech protected by the First Amendment is often intended to offend, annoy or scare but could be prosecuted under this law,” wrote Media Coalition, a group backed by the MPAA and the RIAA, in a letter to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (pdf). “When a Danish newspaper posted pictures of Muhammad, they were intended to be offensive to Muslims to make a point about religion but this could be a crime if a Muslim in Arizona viewed the pictures online and considered them profane.” 

Media Coalition goes on to explain that a near-infinite number of comments could fall under the bill’s definition of unlawful language, from books promoting religion or atheism, to the comments of entertainers like Rush Limbaugh or Jon Stewart.

“While protecting people from harassment is a worth goal,” the letter reads, “legislators cannot do so by criminalizing speech protected by the Constitution.”

Considering the uproar that surrounded  PIPA and SOPA, it’s entirely possible that the bill will end up back in the hands of legislatures. But even if it doesn’t, some experts believe that the law would be essentially unenforceable, and therefore, meaningless.

Janet Sternberg, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University, believes that such an attempt by lawmakers is, in fact, a ‘moot point.’

“Anything that relates to the Internet in trying to enforce things, and this is a state attempt, is unenforceable,” Sternberg told Digital Trends. “This is the pattern we’ve seen from any real effect from legal action regarding anything that happens on the Internet. The only people who are going to be happy about this are the lawyers because they get paid by the hour.”

We’re just amazed about just how lackadaisical lawmakers are to have edited a bill intended for telephones in this day and age when our means of communication has not been restricted to telephones for over two decades. 

[Image via Mark Hayes/Shutterstock]

Edit: The correct spelling of the Fordham University professor’s last name is “Sternberg,” not “Steinberg.” The correction has been reflected in the article.