Being obnoxious on the Internet may soon cease to be a fundamental right in Arizona, where lawmakers approved a measure that effectively makes trolling illegal.
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.
Like so much other knee-jerk technology legislation, Arizona’s bill is noble at heart. Its goal is to stop cyber-bullying by outlawing threats and intimidation delivered via Internet.
But as Media Coalition–an organization that includes film and music industry trade groups–points out, the bill is far too broad, both in its language and its scope. By using vague terms like “annoy” and “offend,” the bill risks criminalizing standard Internet practice of acting like a jerk in the comments section of a blog post. Because the bill isn’t limited to one-on-one communication, all open communication on the Internet could be considered a Class 1 misdemeanor if someone deemed the language offensive.
“Government may criminalize speech that rises to the level of harassment and many states have laws that do so, but this legislation takes a law meant to address irritating phone calls and applies it to communication on web sites, blogs, listserves and other Internet communication,” Media Coalition wrote in a letter to Brewer last week.
Ultimately, a law this broad isn’t going to hold up in court. But if the governor signs off on the bill, it will end up wasting a lot of time as free speech defenders work to restore the right to act like a belligerent fool in online forums. No one likes a troll, but behaving like one needn’t be a crime.