The Associated Press April 4, 2012, 6:38PM ET

Ariz. bill says unlawful to 'annoy' others online

Free speech advocates and social media users say an anti-stalking proposal in Arizona goes too far by criminalizing "annoying" or "offensive" comments posted online.

A bi-partisan bill seeking to update telephone harassment and stalking laws by adding the use of computers or smartphones to existing legislation has gone virtually unchallenged in the Legislature and could soon land on Gov. Jan Brewer's desk.

But critics have fixated on a section that makes it illegal to "annoy or offend" someone online -- meaning comments on Facebook or Twitter could result in criminal charges.

Media Coalition, a New York-based First Amendment advocacy group, argues the bill is unconstitutionally broad and infringes on freedom of speech protections. The group has asked Brewer to veto the measure.

"Speaking to annoy or offend is not a crime," Media Coalition Executive Director David Horowitz said.

Horowitz said if the proposal becomes law, speech done in satire, political debate or even sports trash talking could get people in unnecessary legal trouble.

"Somebody who posts on their Facebook page and they happen to be an Arizona Diamondbacks fan ... whoever their rivals are, they can say `Hey your team stinks, and I hope you lose,'" Horowitz said. "Is that an intent to offend or annoy? There's a lot of common banter this would potentially apply to."

Rep. Vic Williams, a Republican from Tucson who helped sponsor the bill, said he welcomes groups like Media Coalition to weigh in but deflected claims from those he called "crackpots and conspiracy theorists" who he says have associated the bill with Orwellian images of authoritarian governments seeking to crack down of freedom of expression.

"Hopefully, we can eliminate the dialogue of the extremists in this conversation, find mainstream consensus where we protect people's privacy, protect people from harassment -- but without quashing, quelling or impeding upon appropriate free speech," Williams said.

Williams said this bill is about helping victims.

"There's a bona fide need to protect people from one-on-one harassment," Williams said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 30 states have anti-harassment and stalking laws in place that reference electronic communication. Several states have legislation in place similar to the proposal awaiting a final vote in the Arizona House.

Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall, who worked with legislators on the bill, said harassment laws need to keep up with technology, calling cries of Internet censorship "overblown and unrealistic."

"People's First Amendment right to say horrible things is not being infringed upon," she said.

LaWall said comments posted online have to be directed at a certain target to face prosecution.

James Weinstein, an Arizona State University professor who teaches constitutional law, said legislators should revise the bill to specify that. Unlike telephones, online chatter is open to a much wider audience, Weinstein said.

"Now that they're extending it to the Internet generally or electronic media generally, it loses that natural limitation to targeted individuals. I think this is just bad drafting. I don't think they're trying to be like China," Weinstein said in reference to that nation's restrictive Internet laws.

Weinstein said this law may lead to some self-censoring, but he doesn't think it will result in a sudden rush of prosecutions.

"Even the world's worst prosecutor wouldn't prosecute" someone for bring offensive or annoying online, Weinstein said.

Weinstein said the statute's wording leaves it vulnerable to being overturned.

"I think they are really asking for a court to strike it down," he said.

But LaWall says the law is needed, saying too often she has seen courts dismiss cases of stalking or harassment simply because the law hasn't caught up to the technology.

"Right now if an individual attempts to terrify or intimidate or harass somebody by sending them a text on their phone, then it's not really covered by the current statutes which, when they were written, didn't have the technology of texting," she said.

Elizabeth Ditlevson, director of the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said updating the law won't hurt people's free speech rights.

"If you can show your speech is to express an opinion, that's different than using speech to harass to degrade to stalk another person," Ditlevson said. "The longer we wait to pass the law, the longer people wait to be protected."


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