Arizona pushes law to make 'annoying' comments illegal

What if obnoxious or aggressive remarks made on Facebook and Twitter ended in criminal charges? Some free speech advocates are saying that's what a new law in Arizona could do.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
2 min read

Arizona is faced with a dilemma: to possibly curb free speech or be left in a pre-digital age.

The state's legislature has been under fire the past few weeks for a bi-partisan bill that would revise its telephone harassment and stalking laws, according to the Associated Press. The law was written before the influx of computers and smartphones, and updates would add this modern technology into existing legislation.

On one hand, advocates of this law say it would make it easier to criminalize perpetrators who stalk their victims online or with text messages; but, on the other hand, free speech advocates say the law's language is too broad making any "annoying" or "offensive" comment made on the Internet illegal.

"Government may criminalize speech that rises to the level of harassment and many states have laws that do so," David Horowitz, executive director for the New York-based First Amendment advocacy group Media Coalition, wrote in a letter to Gov. Jan Brewer, "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."

What Horowitz is saying is that this law could be used as grounds to seek criminal charges against someone who posts a pushy, controversial, or offensive comment on a social networking-site like Facebook or Twitter.

Arizona Republican Rep. Vic Williams, who helped sponsor the bill, believes that the law is necessary to protect victims from being harassed online or via text, according to the Associated Press.

"There's a bona fide need to protect people from one-on-one harassment," Williams told the Associated Press. "Hopefully, we can eliminate the dialogue of the extremists in this conversation, find mainstream consensus where we protect people's privacy, protect people from harassment -- but without quashing, quelling or impeding upon appropriate free speech."

The law is to have a final vote in the Arizona House and then is expected to make it to Brewer's desk shortly. According to the Associated Press, numerous states are working on legislation similar to what is being proposed in Arizona and more than 30 states already have anti-harassment and stalking laws that include electronic communication.