Save the Trolls: How Vague Laws Clearly Threaten Liberty

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.”
Goodwin continues:
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.)
Many of these same concerns were raised by the Advance Arkansas Institute when Arkansas was debating their own cyberbullying law in the 2011 General Assembly.  Some of the questions were even raised by legislators on the floor, but there was little attention given to these concerns in the state media and too little debate among legislators.  Dan Greenberg, president of AAI, raised some concerns of his own, as reported here on The Arkansas Project:
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.

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6 thoughts on “Save the Trolls: How Vague Laws Clearly Threaten Liberty

  • April 26, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Nic(k) old buddy, one thing you must learn hear at TAP. OK, actually more than one to be honest.

    1) First and most important, photos are to be of bikini clad lasses.
    2) Second, words in excess of four syllables are banned, use of four syllable words are restricted to no more than 1% of your post, and two or less are preferred.
    3) Third, never make a post that takes longer to read than the average trip to the restroom. Not that I take my computer there of course…
    4) Fourth, only make a post every 3rd or 4th day or you will make Kinkade angry. That is, he will be angry if he happens to read his own blog anymore.
    5) Fifth, more scotch, more cigars, occasional posts by Greenberg, (did I mention the bikini requirement), and a ban on publishing any recipes created by Fourche River Rex.
    6) Finally, some good investigation on the fraud lawsuit against our House Budget Chairman Webb up in Chicago (a woman scorned is a good lede if you need it), some good investigation on Joyce “I’ll vote to raise your taxes but I won’t pay my own” Elliott, and some good investigation on how a state commission funded by an appropriation from the legislature and appointed by the Governor thought it a good idea donate in 2011 to the Democrat Party of Arkansas a $600 check.
    You may forget all of this with exception of the bikini part.

  • April 26, 2012 at 8:55 am

    crap. That was learn HERE and not learn hear. Sorry Nic(k). I am sure that offended your sensibilities.

  • April 26, 2012 at 11:42 am

    I think we are in trouble right from the “get go” when we attempt to legislate speech that “offends”. Offending people is not and should not be a crime if for no other reason that it is impossible to define what is truly “offensive”. I am offended on a daily basis by posts, words, ads, etc. Sometimes I am offended just because some people exist. Well, not really, but it can feel that way. However, as the “offended party”, my right remains the same……to turn it off, turn it down, or turn away from it. You cannot attempt to legislate something as slippery as a perceived offense.

  • April 26, 2012 at 11:47 am

    I have to agree with you, my (as yet unmet) friend. This whole “offensive speech” thing has gotten (like TSA) totally out of hand. Some of the Saturday night conversations that I have been a part of with you and yours on Facebook could even be considered offensive. Actually, now that I think about it, those conversations were incredibly offensive! And fun. Bikini clad lasses… What were you writing about?

    Good blog!

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