Arizona lawmakers are facing a backlash over a proposal that could land people in jail for sending a nasty tweet or other digital message – prompting efforts to change the bill already approved by both chambers.
The so-called cyber bulling bill is being criticized for being too broad, largely because it would prohibit a digital message that would “annoy or offend.”
GOP state Rep. Ted Vogt, the bill’s primary sponsor, said Thursday that state House and Senate lawmakers will meet within about a week to attempt to improve the bill, following the storm of criticism from First Amendment advocates and other free-speech supporters.
“The bill has been misrepresented in terms of scope and prohibitive conduct,” he told Fox News. “It was never our intent to interfere with broadcasters or any other public speech, but we will clarify.”
The bill is essentially an update to a roughly 30-year-old bill that prohibits phone harassment.
“Technology has moved beyond what it was in 1973,” Vogt said. “If you cannot call somebody and threaten them, then there should be a law to make that illegal by other means.”
Right now the bill -- which passed both chambers with bipartisan support -- would result in a misdemeanor charge that carries a maximum $2,500 fine and six months in jail for anybody who uses a computer, smartphone or similar device to send a message to “terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend.”
The outcry began last month with critics objecting mostly to the bill’s failure to clearly define what would be considered annoying or offensive.
While critics expressed no objection to the bill’s intent to prohibit cyber “stalking” and “threats of physical harm,” they said a fine or potential jail time for “lewd” or “profane” language is overreaching.
Vogt said the lawmakers will address three aspects of the bill: clarify that the cyber message is targeting a specific person or group, clarify that the communication is unwanted or unsolicited and ensure the bill doesn’t interfere with constitutionally protected speech or other activities protected by law.
“The trouble with the law is it could apply to a wide range of speech, which is why we suggested some changes,” said David Horowitz, executive director of the Media Coalition in New York. “Lewd language and profanity is certainly not appropriate, but it’s not illegal. It’s encouraging that the lawmakers are taking a second look. We’ll see what comes out of the meeting.”