Arizona House Retreats from Internet Censorship

Published May 17, 2012

With so much nonsense emanating from the halls of Congress, the White House, and the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, DC, it’s all too easy to overlook some of the shenanigans afoot on the state and local levels. There is plenty of the latter, though sometimes sanity ultimately prevails, as happened this week when the Arizona state legislature abandoned an attempt to pass an Internet censorship bill to curtail cyberbullying and other nefarious activities.

Yes, the new film Bully presents compelling portraits of schoolchildren subjected to a variety of physical and mental ignominies, and it has garnered a ton of ink the past few weeks over its controversial R rating due to a few nasty words and the likeably awkward subjects who endure bullies’ wrath. It’s also well-known that texting and social networking sites are the new favored playgrounds on which sociopaths commit digital atrocities against their victims.

But the Arizona House of Representatives’ bill (HB 2549) that attempted to mitigate the abuses suffered at the thumbs and keyboards of bullies went too far–something the House missed the first time around and the Senate missed as well when it amended the bill and sent it back to the House for approval. By then, fortunately, the hue and cry of the public, First Amendment scholars, and industry groups convinced the bill’s sponsor to pull it from consideration.

At issue was whether the bill violated constitutionally protected free-speech guarantees, which indeed it did. The bill’s intent was to suppress online and electronic stalking, harassment, and cyberbullying, but you know where the road of good intentions usually leads.

What the bill actually proposed is this: “It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use a telephone or 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.”

Imagine the real-world ramifications if such a bill had been passed. South Park, Bill Maher, Ann Coulter, and that screeching pig on the commercial for something I can’t remember are all potentially offensive and insulting to someone. I sometimes send video links of The Muppet Show‘s Beeker crooning “Feelings” to my social networking friends when they write that their emotions trump my research, a transgression both annoying and offensive by intent if not necessarily received as such. Such communications obviously shouldn’t be illegal, unless we wish to live in a totalitarian society.

As the 1941 U.S. Supreme Court noted (as I was reminded by my friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation): “[I]t’s a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, although not always with perfect good taste.”

Fortunately, but perhaps only for the time being, the bill was stopped before landing on Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk. Perhaps the most telling aspect of this cautionary tale is that opposition to the bill spread like wildfire throughout the Web nation and it was the bloggers and legal experts who convinced the Arizona elected officials to put the Brylcreem back in the tube, link arms, and belt out a paraphrase of the old Bobby Fuller Four chestnut: “I Fought the Internet, and the Internet Won.”

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News.