Ariz. bill against ‘annoying’ online to get change

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PHOENIX (AP) - Arizonans venturing online may have to think twice before leaving a comment on a website.

Words that someone could view as “annoying” or “offensive” on Facebook or Twitter, for example, could be deemed a criminal offense under a bi-partisan bill that’s moving swiftly to Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk.

The bill would update telephone harassment and stalking laws by adding the use of computers or smartphones.

Supporters say the measure would help victims of online stalking and harassment whose cases have been dismissed in court because state law has not caught up with the technology.

“There’s a bona fide need to protect people from one-on-one harassment,” said Rep. Vic Williams, a Tucson Republican who has been a key supporter of the bill.

Critics say the proposal goes too far.

“Speaking to annoy or offend is not a crime,” said David Horowitz, the executive director of the Media Coalition, a New York-based First Amendment advocacy group, adding that the measure is unconstitutionally broad.

The measure’s sponsor Tucson Republican Rep. Tim Vogt said late Wednesday the bill will be updated to address such concerns.

“This is not meant to affect constitutionally protected free speech or activity or speech authorized by law,” Vogt said, adding that he decided to amend the plan after hearing from concerned supporters in the state House.

As written, if the bill becomes law, Horowitz said, speech done in satire, political debate or even sports trash talking could get people in unnecessary legal trouble.

“Somebody who posts on their Facebook page and they happen to be an Arizona Diamondbacks fan … whoever their rivals are, they can say `Hey your team stinks, and I hope you lose,’” Horowitz said.

“Is that an intent to offend or annoy? There’s a lot of common banter this would potentially apply to,” he said.

The group has asked Brewer to veto the measure. So far, Brewer has not publicly commented on their letter.

Williams said he welcomes groups like the Media Coalition to weigh in.

But he rejected claims from those he called “crackpots and conspiracy theorists” who he says have associated the bill with Orwellian images of authoritarian governments seeking to crack down of freedom of expression.

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