Arizona Capitol

Arizona Legislature Apparently Trying to Criminalize Being Annoying on the Internet

Update 2: H.B. 2549 has been stopped.

Update: Anonymous advocates are sending Jan Brewer and legislators a "butthurt report form" in response to House Bill 2549. 

It has been brought to our attention that there's a bill cruising through the Legislature that, according to some critics, could cause people like myself and this blog's commenters to be thrown in jail for generally being jackasses on the Internet.

We understand that there's probably a healthy amount of people who wouldn't be entirely opposed to the above-mentioned situation, but critics to House Bill 2549 say this legislation could have some pretty broad effects.

According to a Senate fact sheet, HB 2549 "[p]rohibits using any electronic or digital device, instead of a telephone, with the intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend a person."

The Senate approved this one 30 to zip last week, but more critics are coming out of the woodwork to point out some problems the bill could cause.

The Media Coalition is labeling the legislation as a "bill to censor electronic speech," saying, "...H.B. 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."

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who runs the "Volokh Conspiracy" website, basically says being an asshole on blog comments -- which New Times generally appreciates -- could be a criminal act:

So, under the statute, posting a comment to a newspaper article -- or a blog -- saying that the article or post author is "fucking out of line" would be a crime: It's said with intent to offend, it uses an electronic or digital device, and it uses what likely will be seen as profane language (see, e.g., City of Columbia Falls v. Bennett (Mont. 1991)). Likewise if a blog poster were to post the same in response to a commenter's comment. Likewise if someone posts something in response to an e-mail on an e-mail-based discussion list, or in a chatroom, or wherever else. (Note that if "profane" is read to mean not vulgarly insulting, but instead religiously offensive, see City of Bellevue v. Lorang (Wash. 2000), then the statute would be unconstitutional as well.)

In this line of thinking, that would generally turn every comments section to a New Times post about the Hells Angels into a big bag of criminal evidence, since most of the comments are people calling each other pussies and meth-heads a few hundred times.

The Media Coalition notes several famous people who make a living doing the exact stuff mentioned in the legislation, as well as some common examples -- like sports fans talking shit to each other on the Internet, which is typically meant to annoy or offend fans of an opposing team.

The Media Coalition has sent memos to a couple of Senate committees showing a ton of examples of how possibly moronic and unconstitutional this law could be.

According to the vote history on the bill, through committees and floor votes, it hasn't seen substantial opposition anywhere.

Even Comedy Central writers have picked up on this one, writing on one of its blogs that there might be "a silver lining in this blatantly unconstitutional attempt to ban trolling."

"Though Arizona is doing its best to criminalize birth control and immigration, among other facets of the modern world, it still hasn't banned electricity," the post says. "In fact, Arizona legislators use 'digital device[s]' to draft legislation that is often plainly intended to annoy or offend anyone with a conscience.

"When Arizona legislators outlaw trolling, only outlaws will be Arizona legislators."

Even the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and Vladimir Putin apologists are getting testy about Arizona's proposed legislation.

You can check out the Senate-engrossed version of the bill by clicking here.

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley