Arizona is considering a new law that would criminalize Internet trolling, and I fully support the idea.
First, let’s take a look at the hard news. Arizona House Bill 2549, which has already passed both the Arizona House of Representatives and Senate, would make it unlawful to “to use 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” with the specific intention of scaring, annoying, or offending the person on the other end of such activity. (You can see the full text of the bill as passed by the legislature below.)
The bill is waiting for the signature of the governor, and it would make trolling and cyber-bullying a Class 1 misdemeanor, the maximum consequence of which would include a six-month jail stint. Stalking someone using an electronic device would become a Class 3 felony with wide-ranging sentencing options that include multiple years behind bars.
The bill seems drastic, but as someone whose job includes being on the receiving end of online harassment, name-calling, and threats, drastic sounds good to me.
Say it hampers free speech*, as many media commentators already have. Call it “the I’m butthurt law,” as we read on the Daily Kos. But the fact of the matter is that online harassment isn’t all in good fun, as the troll camp would have you believe. It’s just as real and just as traumatic as real-world harassment, and it should be just as illegal. If you ran up to me in the street, shaking your fist and screaming obscenities, that would be assault, even if you said later it was just supposed to be a joke. If you called me up on the phone and started saying obscene and lascivious things, that would be a class 1 misdemeanor. Why should the law be any different if you start slinging obscenities at me on Twitter or Facebook?
In fact, in a few recent and notable cases, trolling has cost people their lives. Remember 2010’s rash of gay teen suicides? Online bullying played a large role in those. With a hacked webcam and a string of tweets, one young man’s life was blown up to the extent that he thought he couldn’t put it back together again. Four days after the harassment started, that young man jumped off a bridge and died.
Tyler Clementi’s bully was charged with and convicted of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, among other things, for a simple act of trolling that ended rather badly. However, Clementi’s privacy still would have been invaded and he would have been intimidated even if he hadn’t ended his life. Unfortunately, Clementi’s suicide is really the only reason his tormentor faced any charges at all.
A more recent example is Rafael Morelos, a teen who hanged himself after being bullied on Facebook about his sexual orientation. Or Amanda Cummings, a teen who threw herself in front of a bus after receiving harassing Facebook posts and emails.
Not every “go kill yourself” post on 4chan ends in a death, and not every mean-spirited troll is a criminal in the legal sense of the word, but a lot of online harassment goes unacknowledged and unpunished until someone ends up physically hurt or worse.
It’s a grossly unjust state of affairs, but it’s not for lack of legislation. Currently, only sixteen U.S. states have not passed anti-cyberbullying laws (only three states have no laws on the books regarding cyber-bullying in schools), and just twelve states have omitted the issue of online harassment from legislation. But generally speaking, only the most extreme cases of online bullying and harassment are ever prosecuted, and they end up falling under existing laws covering stalking, defamation, etc.
Currently, Arizona’s definition of harassment (punishable-by-law-type harassment that counts as a Class 1 misdemeanor) includes anyone who “anonymously or otherwise contacts, communicates, or causes a communication with another person by verbal, electronic, mechanical, telegraphic, telephonic or written means in a manner that harasses.”
Also, the entire bill being proposed in Arizona isn’t even new legislation; it’s just a simple edit to law already on the books that changes the words “a telephone” to “any electronic or digital device.”
So if Arizona (and just about every other state) already counts cyberbullying and cyberharassment as a misdemeanor (or a felony, depending on the target), why is everyone making such a big deal about this new bill? What’s it got that older laws ain’t got?
Arizona wants to make it just as illegal to harass and intimidate people online as it already is over the phone or in person. The state wants to make it illegal to use laptops and GPS and any other devices we dream up in the future to hurt people. Actually harmful trolling is, according to any reading of Arizona and other states’ law, already illegal; legislators are just making sure the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted so the laws currently on the books don’t become obsolete or misunderstood.
There’s something about our culture that doesn’t want online speech to be in the same class as other kinds of speech. Trolls want to have carte blanche to say things online that they’d be too cowardly to say over the phone or in person. Current laws with current language can, to an extent, add to the illusion that this behavior is permissible.
But it’s not. That’s why I’m glad Arizona, for all its other legislative foibles in recent years, is making that clear.
*Let’s have a little media law lesson about free speech, while we’re at it. You’re pretty much allowed to post whatever you like on your own website(s), for the most part and especially if you host it yourself on your own server. But if you’re posting something on someone else’s site, the laws of free speech no longer apply. The person who maintains the website controls the speech on that site, and you’re (literally) in his or her domain. So you can’t complain about your lack of “free speech rights” on Celine Dion’s Facebook wall or a blog’s comments section. Likewise, you don’t technically have “free speech rights” on social networks or blogging platforms that you, yourself, don’t own and host. If you want to exercise your true rights to free speech, you need to do so in a non-commercial forum that you control pretty much down to the bare metal. Believe it or not, repression of speech is totally constitutional, as long as it’s not Congress that’s doing the repression.