In the Wake of Protest and Public Scrutiny, Arizona Legislature Pulls Back Electronic Speech Censorship Bill

by Betsy Gomez

ABC 15, an Arizona affiliate is reporting that a sweeping electronic media censorship bill passed by the state’s legislature last week and headed to Governor Jan Brewer’s desk for signature has been pulled back in the wake of public outcry. Last week, CBLDF called attention to the bill and its constitutional deficiencies, helping to spark a wave of media coverage that turned the tide against the bill.

Lawmakers intended the law to protect people from online stalkers and bullies, but the law was so broadly worded that it would apply to the internet as a whole, not one-to-one communications, and the legislation does a poor job of defining the material that would run afoul of the law. As a result, anyone posting constitutionally-protected material could face charges if an individual deemed the material was intended to “annoy,” “offend,” “harass,” or “terrify.”

Media Coalition, a trade association that advocates for the First Amendment rights of content producers and whose membership includes CBLDF, wrote a letter addressing the root problems with the bill:

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. H.B. 2549 is not limited to a one to one conversation between two specific people. The communication does not need to be repetitive or even unwanted. There is no requirement that the recipient or subject of the speech actually feel offended, annoyed or scared. Nor does the legislation make clear that the communication must be intended to offend or annoy the reader, the subject or even any specific person.

Speech protected by the First Amendment is often intended to offend, annoy or scare but could be prosecuted under this law. A Danish newspaper posted pictures of Muhammad that were intended to be offensive to make a point about religious tolerance. If a Muslim in Arizona considers the images profane and is offended, the paper could be prosecuted. Some Arizona residents may consider Rush Limbaugh’s recent comments about a Georgetown law student lewd. He could be prosecuted if he intended his comments to be offensive. Similarly, much general content available in the media uses racy or profane language and is intended to offend, annoy or even terrify. Bill Maher’s stand up routines and Jon Stewart’s nightly comedy program, Ann Coulter’s books criticizing liberals and Christopher Hitchens’ expressing his disdain for religion, Stephen King’s novels or the Halloween films all could be subject to this legislation. Even common taunting about sports between rival fans done online is frequently meant to offend or annoy and is often done using salty and profane language.

While going through the legislature, the bill garnered little notice from the press. After the release of the Media Coalition letter, other outlets picked up on the story, including Time, MSNBC, Yahoo, Digital Media Wire, Gizmodo, and many more.

CBLDF recognized that the law could create vulnerabilities for cartoonists and publishers. Beyond the example of the Mohammad cartoons listed in the Media Coalition letter, the taboo-pushing work of cartoonists like R. Crumb, Johnny Ryan, and Ivan Brunetti would potentially be vulnerable to prosecution, as could incendiary works such as Frank Miller’s Holy Terror and Dave Sim’s Cerebus.

CBLDF’s sharing of the Media Coalition letter caught the eye of various outlets, including Forbes, CBR, Alex Jones’ Prison Planet, The New American, Anime News Network, Tech Crunch, and more.

The Media Coalition recognizes that protecting people from harassment is a worthy goal, but they also know that it cannot be done by criminalizing constitutionally-protected speech. There is some hope that in pulling the bill, legislators are amending it to address the concerns raised by the Media Coalition and other groups. In the meantime, the Media Coalition is maintaining updates on their website here. CBLDF will also stay on top of the story and post updates as they become available.

Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work and reporting on issues like this by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!

Betsy Gomez is the Web Editor for CBLDF.