Electronic harassment bill slowed
A bill sent back to the Arizona House of Representatives from the Senate regarding electronic harassment will take longer than expected to reach Governor Jan Brewer’s desk.
Rep. Vic Williams (R – Northwest Pima County) said the bill, HB 2549, has been slowed in response to public opinion.
“It’s slowing down,” Williams said. “We’re listening to the concerns of the public who are concerned that the bill is too broad in its dialogue and will quash free speech.”
Williams also said he personally intends to address the concerns of the public.
“I want to listen to their concerns,” Williams said. “We want to make sure that we provide adequate protection that currently has been under this legislation which has been in place for about 46 years which has to do with harassment primarily through telephone communications. But we also know that there’s a need to upgrade the legislative process for the use of newer technologies. The problem is deciding how do we get there continue to protect people about harassment laws, protect people about the use of telephoning as a way of harassing people and still make them applicable to modern technologies without quashing, quelling or suppressing free speech.”
Williams said one group that voiced its concern over the substance of the bill was Media Coalition, an association dedicated to defending the First Amendment.
David Horowitz, the executive director of Media Coalition, said the main concern of his group was that the law was unconstitutional.
“We believed that section 1A, the first part [of the bill] is substantially overbroad and would criminalize a great deal of speech that is protected by the First Amendment,” Horowitz said.
The bill reads as follows:
“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. It is also unlawful to otherwise disturb by repeated anonymous electronic or digital communications the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person at the place where the communications were received.”
One major concern of opponents is the possibility of Internet censorship. However, as cited in the legislation, it is the language in the communication disturbing a person that would be illegal, not necessarily the act of communicating itself.
Williams said one of his concerns is people are misunderstanding the bill and how it is meant to be applied.
“So many people, in my opinion, are misconstruing the bill and saying that you can use it for all these different things and all these different issues may happen about this bill that I think paragraph B, subsection b, lines 7-10 really addresses that,” Williams said. “It says it does not try to usurp the constitution.”
Section B/b, regarding exceptions to the law, reads as follows:
“Does not include constitutionally protected activity or other activity authorized by law, the other person, the other person’s authorized representative or if the other person is a minor, the minor’s parent or guardian.”
In essence, if such activities are protected by the Constitution, legally sanctioned or undertaken with permission of the other party, they would not be violating law.
Horowitz said the language within the bill of not infringing on constitutionally protected speech does not go far enough in protecting people’s freedoms.
“Your First Amendment rights don’t depend on some amorphous statement that this won’t be applied to or doesn’t apply to the First Amendment or First Amendment protected material,” Horowitz said. “That would mean you would have to argue once you’re prosecuted, that in fact your First Amendment rights top that.”
Martin Sommerness, a journalism professor at NAU who focuses on communication law, said he thinks walking the line between insuring free speech as well as safety is tricky.
“It’s a very tough line to draw, absolutely,” Sommerness said. “We want to protect people against bullying, especially as we’ve seen the bullying problem in schools.”
Sommerness also said he believes suits will be brought against the state if the legislation were signed into law without being changed.
“I see this being a bonanza for people suing the state and the state ending up spending a great deal of money defending these suits and I suspect that some of them will be successful against the state, if the legislation, as proposed, is signed into law,” Sommerness said.
Williams said the bill’s progress was halted due to a desire to reword the language opponents of the bill had issue with.
“It was brought back over from the Senate,” Williams said. “We had a confirm or refuse conference that is basically pushed through by the sponsor of the bill. We refused the bill intentionally so it slowed down the process and we have the chance to amend it again.”
Horowitz acknowledged the willingness of supporters of the bill to rewrite it so any perceived constitutional violations would no longer be problem.
“We certainly agreed to work with Representative Williams and anyone else in the legislature to address our concerns. We’re happy to be a part of it,” Horowitz said. “We understand that it may not have been their intention to write a law as broadly as they have or we believe they have.”
Horowitz said he is optimistic about amending the law in a way that appeals to both sides.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to work out a compromise that addresses concerns about harassment but also protects First Amendment rights to free speech,” Horowitz said.