Nearly the entire Arizona legislature deserves “Fool of the Week” honors this time. That is because HB 2549, a bill to criminalize electronic speech that is offensive or annoying, passed both the state House and Senate nearly unanimously. With votes in the House vote of 58-1 (one abstention) and a Senate of 30-0, the bill is currently sitting on Governor Jan Brewer’s desk for her signature.
The Media Coalition sent an urgent letter to Brewer describing the many problems with this overreaching bill:
H.B. 2549 would make it a crime to use any electronic or digital device to communicate using obscene, lewd or profane language or to suggest a lewd or lascivious act if done with intent to “annoy,” “offend,” “harass” or “terrify.” The legislation offers no definitions for “annoy,” “offend,” “harass” or “terrify.” “Electronic or digital device” is defined only as any wired or wireless communication device and multimedia storage device. “Lewd” and “profane” are not defined in the statute or by reference. “Lewd” is generally understood to mean lusty or sexual in nature and “profane” is generally defined as disrespectful or irreverent about religion or religious practices.
Even if Brewer fails to veto the bill, there is a great likelihood that it is unconstitutional. The letter continues:
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.
The sole vote against this bill was John Fillmore, A Republican from Apache Junction. The reason he voted against it are not clear, but he is a small government advocate and may have thought this is too broad of a government power. Whatever the reason, he deserves credit as the only sensible lawmaker on this issue in the legislature.
It is astounding that there was not a First Amendment advocate in either House who would have pointed out the anti-free speech provisions in this bill. Because there aren’t enough jester caps to go around to the 88 voting-yes members who deserve them, the bill’s primary sponsor, Ted Vogt can wear it for all of them. Here’s for annoying them, while it is still legal.
The overwhelming support for this bill helps explain why there is so much garbage legislation coming out of Arizona these days.