A recent ‘anti-cyberstalking’ or ‘cyberbullying’ bill in Arizona raised some eyebrows before it ever reached the governor’s desk. Apparently the bill was so broad in its potential application that some lawmakers now worry that it could be used to silence online “trolls” who post hateful things on Facebook and in online chat rooms.
Despite the fact that all of these concerns were previously well-known to anyone with half a brain, legislators apparently thought it was best to pass the law so they could find out what was in it. Now that they’ve found out, they’re trying to slow its path to the governor’s pen to give them time to consider its constitutionality.
In short, we have lawmakers discovering constitutional concerns in a bill at the precise moment when they can no longer address them. (At least they’re a little quicker on the draw than their colleagues in Arkansas.) Let’s look west.
Liz Goodwin of Yahoo News reports:
In March, Arizona politicians overwhelmingly voted to update an old statute that prohibited harassment and stalking by telephone to also include Internet communications, in an effort to combat cyberbullying. The new statute says it’s illegal for anyone to use profane or lewd language on an electronic device with the intent to “terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend.” The statute also makes it a crime for someone to infringe upon the “peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person” by “repeated anonymous electronic or digital communications.”
One of the key problems with the statute, according to legal experts, is that the law is not limited to one-to-one communications, such as emails, Facebook messages or texts. That means someone’s offensive tweets, comments or any other publicly available online words could fall under the reach of the law. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh writes that if someone uses profanity to insult the author of an online article in the article’s section for comments, he or she could theoretically be prosecuted under this law. (So if you’re in Arizona, think twice before cursing me out in the comments.)
Although this bill describes some behavior that clearly should be criminally punishable, it also raises three other relevant questions. First, what portion of the behavior that the bill targets already is prohibited under existing criminal law? Second, would the bill punish any behavior that should not be punishable? Third, does the bill endanger the rights that are guaranteed by our state and federal Constitution?
So, why should you care? A) You are an online troll. B) You know online trolls. C) You are an actual troll that lives under a bridge. D) You value freedom & liberty. E) All of the above.
Freedom has its limits: we have many laws in this country and state to ensure that my liberty doesn’t infringe on yours. So perhaps some limit on threatening online speech is not in itself unreasonable. Lawmakers should seek a balance that protects free speech but also protects everyone’s interest in personal safety. After all, verbal threats are criminal under state law. But when legislators pass laws that they haven’t considered the implications of, the results are potentially disastrous for all of us, not just trolls. The last thing we want is sweeping legislation which prohibits conduct that deserves protection.
As far as we know, under Arkansas’ cyberbullying law, I could be thrown in jail for writing a blog post that forcefully criticizes state legislators for creating bad policy. As much as some of you would like that, I think the point is clear: when clear expectations are not given, they cannot be met. This is a threat to liberty.
Everyone is against bullying. It’s despicable. But everyone is also (presumably) for free speech and more specifically, everyone can hopefully agree that shotgun laws that could potentially alter the lives of every internet user in a given state deserve more scrutiny than they’ve ever received. Lawmakers cannot seriously demand responsible behavior from everyone else after they irresponsibly pass legislation that prohibits or criminalizes huge swaths of everyday life.
We still do not know what the long-term impact of Arkansas’ cyberbullying law will be, but as a general rule, citizens should demand more responsible, more clearly defined laws from their representatives. Kudos to the folks in Arizona for exercising some level of critical thinking and legislative restraint — albeit belated.