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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Bill raises concerns about free speech

Proposed state legislation could criminalize harassing or annoying people through various forms of communication, but the bill’s vague language could kill its hopes of passing.

Arizona Rep. Ted Vogt, a Republican from District 30, has been working to refine the language of an Arizona statute that makes it illegal to use a telephone with the intent to terrify, intimidate or harass. House Bill 2549 would make it a crime to harass anyone through any form of electronic communication, including the Internet. Violators could go to jail for six months.

The bill has gone through both the House and Senate in different forms, but is still awaiting final approval from the House. Vogt said he is revamping the bill due to concerns raised about its language being too broad, as well as the fact that some profane language on mediums like the Internet is used in a joking manner. He will be clearing up some of the bill’s language in a committee hearing next week.

The bill currently states that 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 persons.” In addition, the bill would make it illegal to stalk anyone through any electronic form of communication.

“Electronic or digital device,” for the purposes of the bill, includes “any wired or wireless communication device and multimedia storage device.”

Questions have also been raised about the bill’s constitutionality, as some believe that it could violate the First Amendment right of free speech. Vogt said this is not his intention — he simply wants to protect individuals from unwanted harassment and intimidation. He hopes to make this clear through language revisions in the bill, he said.

Derek Bambauer, an associate professor of law at Brooklyn Law School in New York who will be a UA professor in the fall, called the bill “blatantly unconstitutional.” Although the bill’s overarching goal is good, Bambauer said, its current draft would be unable to protect free speech rights. Without work, it won’t take long for a federal court to “strike it down,” he said.

Students who have experienced cyberbullying, like journalism junior Ashley Nevel, say they hope the bill will pass.

“If it wasn’t for my hardheaded, ‘I don’t care’ attitude, I would have reacted to it a lot differently,” Nevel explained. She said she was harassed via Twitter and other social media websites. “But any form of bullying or harassment for no reason or motive is just wrong and should be stopped.”
Other students said they were concerned that the bill could affect what they write on the Internet.
“I think the Internet should be completely free, with no restrictions whatsoever,” said journalism junior Drew McCullough.

James Mitchell, an assistant professor of practice in the UA School of Journalism, said he thinks this will be a “superfluous” and “deeply silly law.”

“We already have a law against threatening,” he said. “Our right to annoy and offend people is protected by the First Amendment.”

Toni Massaro, a law professor in the James E. Rogers College of Law, said she thinks the bill aims to deal with a more specific issue.

“It looks to me that the state is trying to deal with the serious problem of cyberbullying and harassment,” she said.

The bill’s language is too vague and terms like “profane,” “lewd” and “annoy or offend” are overly broad, Massaro said. If the bill were to pass in its current form, she added, the courts would probably wait to see how the language is applied and enforced.

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