By Katerina Azarova
Does this article – or maybe just the headline – annoy, offend or terrify you? If so, it may soon be illegal in Arizona.
The state’s legislature has passed a bill which would update an existing telephone harassment law to apply to the Internet and other forms of electronic communication. The problem, though, is that it dramatically broadens the scope, making it potentially criminal to even marginally offend someone when they aren’t even the target of the “offensive” communication.
As outlined by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, “the bill is sweepingly broad, and would make it a crime to communicate – via any electronic means – speech that is intended to ‘annoy,’ ‘offend,’ ‘harass’ or ‘terrify,’ as well as certain sexual speech. Because the bill is not limited to one-to-one communications, House Bill 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.”
The lawmakers’ concern is quite understandable: more and more stories of cyber bullying appear every day, and racially, sexually and morally offensive comments and interactions are, sadly, a frequent sight on the web.
But in their rush to protect Arizona citizens from harm, legislators seem to have forgotten one key thing: to define all those terms that they are trying to deem punishable.
Words like ‘lewd’ or ‘profane’ are not defined by statute, or in reference. Most people understand ‘lewd’ to mean of a lusty or sexual nature, and ‘profane’ is disrespectful of religious beliefs and practices. And how does one define ‘annoying,’ when it’s so individual?
Section one of this law is so vague, in fact, that a person could be prosecuted because a friend of a friend of a friend found a Facebook post offensive. Which is ridiculous, as I, for example, get annoyed by my friends posting carefree vacation updates while I’m stuck behind a desk at work. And I get terrified by people posting pictures of the sphynx, the hairless cats which everyone colloquially refers to as naked. (Speaking of which, if they are ‘naked’ and someone posts their pictures, does that constitute lewd online conduct?)
I’m also pretty sure we all know people who would be offended by religious discourse of the ‘is there a God?’ variety. I’m offended by the fact there are people who get offended by that. Are we all prosecutable, then? Is this is? Sit down, log off and shut up, Arizona?
What’s even scarier is that this law could criminalize satire. Sorry, Jon Stewart – the “best f#@cking news team ever” is not welcome in the Copper State. You probably won’t even be able to play off the double-entendre of the state’s nickname, because the coppers will get you.
Right now, the only thing standing in this bill’s way is the governor’s signature. The Media Coalition, a group dedicated to defending the First Amendment, wrote an open letter to Gov. Jan Brewer asking her to veto the bill.
“Speech protected by the First Amendment is often intended to offend, annoy or scare but could be prosecuted under this law. A Danish newspaper posted pictures of Muhammad that were intended to be offensive to make a point about religious tolerance. If a Muslim in Arizona considers the images profane and is offended, the paper could be prosecuted. Some Arizona residents may consider Rush Limbaugh’s recent comments about a Georgetown law student lewd. He could be prosecuted if he intended his comments to be offensive. Similarly, much general content available in the media uses racy or profane language and is intended to offend, annoy or even terrify.
Bill Maher’s stand up routines and Jon Stewart’s nightly comedy program, Ann Coulter’s books criticizing liberals and Christopher Hitchens’ expressions of his disdain for religion, Stephen King’s novels or the Halloween films all could be subject to this legislation. Even common taunting about sports between rival fans done online is frequently meant to offend or annoy, and is often done using salty and profane language.”
Of course, Governor Brewer could find this offensive, and sign the bill to protect herself. But she will then also have to explain to Arizona Senator and former GOP presidential candidate John McCain why his daughter is being prosecuted for saying she loves “men and sex” in a magazine interview. I’m sure someone somewhere in Arizona found that lewd. Or possibly even offensive.