Arizona Capitol

Changes Proposed to Online Harassment Bill; Allows People to "Annoy or Offend" Others on the Internet -- to an Extent

Arizona's House Bill 2549 -- which was derailed after a critic's view that it was a "bill to censor electronic speech" caught on -- now has some proposed changes.

Based on the complaints from the main catalyst for the outrage on the Internet -- the Media Coalition -- the changes still might not make everyone happy.

There are a few technical changes proposed to the bill, with the most meaningful being the deletion of text outlawing the use of electronic or digital devices to "annoy or offend" someone.

"It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate,  threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use any electronic or digital device and use any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act, or threaten to inflict physical harm to the person or  property of any person," the initial text of the bill read.

Now, legislators propose taking out the "annoy or offend" part, and clarifying that it has to be directed at a specific person or specific people.

In a letter Media Coalition executive director David Horowitz sent to the governor last month, he described how "annoy" and "offend" weren't the only words in the bill he had a problem with.

"Harass," "terrify," "lewd," and "profane" were too vague, he argued.

"[There is no] exception to the First Amendment for speech that is profane or lewd or
that suggests a lewd or lascivious act," Horowitz wrote. "Many would consider the speech of the Westboro Baptist Church at issue in [Snyder v. Phelps] to be profane, but the Court found it to be protected."

Horowitz said about the bill passed by the Senate, "It may be that H.B. 2549 is not intended to criminalize speech in the media but only what legitimately rises to the level of harassment; however, an unconstitutional statute is not cured by a narrower intent or a promise by legislators or prosecutors that the statute will be used in such a limited fashion."

State Representative Vic Williams told New Times a few weeks ago that the actual intent of the bill was not to throw Internet trolls in jail -- the intent was to protect people from harassment and stalking, and defend people's privacy. After concerns were brought up about the bill, it was stopped so that could be addressed.

We've reached out to the Media Coalition for its opinion on the changes, but no one got back to us at the time of this post.

We'll keep you updated on whether the changes are accepted, or any progress the bill makes.