One of the internet’s basic tenets — the right to be as much of a myopic, infantile asshat as humanly possible — is currently under attack in Arizona. A sweeping update to the state’s telecommunications harassment bill could make naughty, angry words a Class 1 misdemeanour — or worse.
It’s a dangerous precedent, and yet another bill written and supported by legislators who fundamentally don’t understand the nature of the internet. And I’m not just being a, well, you know.
Arizona House Bill 2549 passed both legislative houses last Thursday and is now awaiting approval from Arizona’s governor Brewer. The statute states that:
“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.”
Emphasis added. If the electronic devices and means are employed to stalk a victim, the penalty bumps up to a Class 3 felony.
For those not intimately familiar with Arizona penal law, a Class 1 misdemeanour is punishable by a $US2500 fine and up to six months in jail (it’s the most aggressive misdemeanour charge the state can bring). A Class 3 felony, meanwhile, carries a minimum sentence of 2.5 years for non-dangerous offenders with no prior record. And a maximum of 25 years in jail.
Opponents of the bill argue that the wording is overly broad and could easily be interpreted to include not just one-on-one communications, but public forums like 4Chan, Reddit and anywhere else that allows commenting. You thought the banhammer was bad? Try handcuffs.
It could also have a chilling effect on free speech by prohibiting shocking or “profane” language online. And since the bill stipulates that the offense only has to occur on Arizona soil (since a Facebook comment is definitely a geographic place, right?) that basically puts the entire internet on notice.
The bill’s supporters argue that the steps are necessary to prevent online bullying. Despite the public outcry, the bill has seen very little resistance from elected officials. However, given how well Arizona’s other recent, short-lived and generally draconian propositions — including its racial profiling, anti-gay adoption and anti-immigration bills — have fared, House Bill 2549 might not be a law for long, assuming Governor Brewer even signs it.