Updated Arizona Anti-Harassment Bill Features Improved Free Speech Protection

Heeding concerns of the public and organizations like Media Coalition, of which the CBLDF is a member, the state of Arizona has passed an updated and more precise version of March’s legislation against cyberstalking and cyberharassment.

House Bill 2549 was intended to expand existing stalking and harassment laws, written before the advent of online communication. However, after it passed in March with little media scrutiny, First Amendment watchdog groups such as CBLDF and their peers in the Media Coalition began to raise significant concerns about the lack of definition and specificity in the language of the bill.

Fortunately, the Arizona legislature chose to heed the calls for reconsideration. Now an updated version of the bill has passed in the house and is poised to become law. The edits to the bill include a qualification that the offending communication be targeted, ensuring protection for speech in public forums such as blogs and message boards. Only person-to-person contact such as emails and text messages will be considered under the law. Republican Vic Williams, who co-sponsored the bill, tells The Arizona Republic:

“People have the right to make comments about people,” he said. “Those things shouldn’t be inhibited or blocked.”

The changes also eliminate broad language criminalizing messages that “annoy or offend,” restricting penalties to communication that has clear intent to harass. This phrasing was a major concern of free speech advocates, as the freedom to annoy and offend — deliberately or otherwise — are critical to the propagation of ideas and satire in blogging, reporting, and online comics.

Arizona prosecutors are pleased with the new, focused powers of the law:

Kim MacEachern, staff attorney for the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council, said the law will help prosecutors win cases they previously lost.

She said that, in the past, harassment cases involved victims receiving voice mails constantly. But now, it’s text messages.

“It clarifies what it means to harass someone using an electronic communication,” MacEachern said. “I think, in the end, the bill turned out to be pretty specific at what it was getting at.”

With final language that explicitly reiterates that this “section does not apply to constitutionally protected speech,” the updated law is a win for the CBLDF and its fellow free speech advocates, who ensured that media outlets took notice and introduced the original bill to public scrutiny.

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Joe Izenman is a freelance writer and musician in Tacoma, Washington. He owns a lot of comics and he’s pretty sure someone, somewhere would be offended by more than a few of them.