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Concerns about cyberbullying have reached an all-time high recently, gaining traction from the decision in the highly publicized Tyler Clementi case. While non-profit organizations like stopcyberbullying.org list prevention techniques like educating children and raising awareness, some state governments may opt to take a more aggressive step that could end up silencing more than just middle school bullies.
Last week, the Arizona legislature amended its state telephone harassment law to encompass forms of digital communication, too. Despite the legislature’s well-meaning intentions, the legislation has gained much attention for its overly broad language. The bill (PDF) made it “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.”
Without any further limitation, this text appears to infringe upon the First Amendment, raising concerns that it amounts to government censorship of blog commentary, Facebook walls, or other public communication displayed via digital media outlets. Many members of the public are outraged, including one blogger who has gone so far as to compare the legislation to China or Syria’s governance. The Media Coalition, an organization that defends the First Amendment, has responded by sending a letter (PDF) to the governor of Arizona that details the legislation’s faults, as well as by mailing personal memorandums to each of the state senators.
Arizona Representative Ted Vogt has explained that the broad language was a mistake. The purpose of the legislation was to criminalize targeted, harassing communication. He promised that the bill would be amended to say such harassing communications must be directed at a particular person, likely in response to the Media Coalition’s critique that the law did not limit the offending communication to a “one to one conversation between two specific people.” Once these changes are made, Representative Vogt has no doubt that the proposed legislation will become law.
Some law professors, however, continue to express doubt. Geoffrey Stone, a Constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, has been reported as saying, “Even so narrowed, the statute is unconstitutional. You simply cannot prohibit emails that are said to be intended to offend. That violates the First Amendment flat out.”
Certainly something needs to be done to stop cyberbullying, but is this the right step? Does Arizona’s proposed legislation toe the line of censorship a little bit too closely, or is this exactly the type of definitive action that should be taken across the country? Does the verdict in the Tyler Clementi case prove that new legislation isn’t necessary, or does it highlight a gap in our judicial system that Arizona’s law is an attempt to fill?
- Erin Reimer
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