In order to keep up with the technology of our generation, Arizona House Bill 2549 is an update of telephone harassment laws, that bans anything “offensive” sent to a single person or even posted on a public forum. Anything posted electronically that is intended to “annoy,” “offend,” “harass,” or “terrify,” and includes certain sexual speech will be considered criminal action and can be fined and even imprisoned. If found guilty, charges include a $2,500 fine and up to six months in jail, and in some extreme cases, someone with a record could be sentenced up to 25 years in jail. HB 2549 is a bill whose reach is so extensive it can include anything offensive you tweet, talk about on your personal blog or post on your Facebook page.
The bill was originally intended as a solution to cyber-bullying but has been criticized for being too broad and even outright unconstitutional. Many argue that this is an infringement on First Amendment rights, yet the bill was passed with ease in the Arizona house and Senate and received bipartisan support. Although a stretch, this bill can include opinionated statements recently publicized by Rush Limbaugh, or conservative commentary from pundits like Ann Coulter.
The target of skepticism and criticism from free speech and First Amendment groups, the bills primary cosponsor, state Rep. Ted Vogt (R-Tuscon) has said that lawmakers will take into consideration “three aspects of the bill: clarify that the cyber message is targeting a specific person or group, clarify that the communication is unwanted or unsolicited and ensure that the bill doesn’t interfere with constitutionally protected speech or other activities protected by the law.”
Media Coalition, a First Amendment group, sent a letter to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (R) asking her to veto the bill if it ever reaches her desk, arguing that, “government may criminalize speech that rises to the level of harassment and many states have laws that do so, but this legislation takes a law meant to address irritating phone calls and applies to communication on websites, blogs, list serves and other Internet communication. H.B. 2549 is not limited to a one on one conversation between two specific people.”
Agitation for Internet censorship was introduced last year by former President Bill Clinton, who proposed a law to censor free speech and recommended that the government should create an agency to correct misinformation and rumors on the internet. On a CNBC interview, he said, “it would be a legitimate thing to do.”
For now, Internet free speech advocates can breath a momentary sigh of relief. State Representative Vogt has reportedly stopped the bill from progressing forward until all concerns are dealt with and state Representative Vic Williams (R-Northwest Pima County), another cosponsor, said “the bill never intended to put internet trolls in jail, but was to prevent harassment and stalking on the internet.”
State legislators haven’t completely given up on the bill, and are making changes to make sure the bill doesn’t create more controversy or trample free speech rights, before it is handed off to Governor Brewer for her signature. Similar bills have already passed in other states such as New York and Tennessee.