Ariz. bill says unlawful to ‘annoy’ others online

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PHOENIX (AP) - Arizonans venturing online may want 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 helped sponsor 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.

If the bill becomes law, he 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.

Across the country, more than 30 states have laws against harassment and stalking that reference electronic communication, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Several states have legislation in place similar to the proposal awaiting a final vote in the Arizona House.

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