Arizona Passes Bill Targeting "Annoying" and "Offensive" Online Speech

Arizona's extension of a bill targeted toward "annoying" and "offensive" telephone solicitation may have censoring effects on the Internet. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has drawn attention to Arizona's passage of House Bill 2549. The bill, originally intended to combat telephone harassment, will now apply to communications through "electronic means speech" and criminalizes any attempts to "annoy," "offend," "harass" or "terrify."

Trade association Media Coalition has been one prominent critic and the most active opponent of the bill. The organization sent a memo to the Senate Rules Committee. In the memo, they outlined the "constitutional deficiencies" in the updated bill, including complaints about ambiguity in detailing "annoying" and "offensive" speech. Stated the coalition:

Speech protected by the First Amendment is often intended to offend, annoy or scare but could be prosecuted under this law. ... 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.

What is significant in the extension of this telephone law to broader Internet communication is the sphere of jurisdiction that the law creates. As a multi-way communication device, the web provides content that may be offensive and educational at the same time. According to UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh:

Telephones are basically one-to-one devices, so a phone call that uses profane language to offend is likely meant only to offend the one recipient, rather than to persuade or inform anyone; but computers used to post Facebook messages or send Twitter messages or post blog items can offend some listeners while persuading and informing others.

RT notes two more instances of online expression that could be penalized under the new law, including social media activity and comedy. According to section one of the updated law, a person could come under punishment if a friend of a friend of a friend found her Facebook activity offensive. Comedy could also come under attack with the new legislation: "What’s even scarier is that this law could criminalize satire. Sorry, Jon Stewart – the “best f#@cking news team ever” is not welcome in the Copper State. You probably won’t even be able to play off the double-entendre of the state’s nickname, because the coppers will get you."