The Arizona state legislature just passed a bill that would criminalize any use of “obscene, lewd, or profane language” transmitted over “any electronic or digital device … with intent to … offend.” Pending approval by the Governor, the bill could soon become law.
House Bill 2549 [pdf link] was largely touted as a means of combatting cyberbullying. But despite passing with a minimum of opposition in both the House and the Senate, the bill has drawn strong criticism for its overly broad reading, vagueness, and possible unconstitutionality. This opposition has even made for some seemingly strange bedfellows: both Anonymous and Media Coalition, a first-amendment defense organization that represents — among other clients — the MPAA and RIAA, have come out publicly against the bill.
Granted, it’s hard to say that any view represents the entirety of the Anonymous collective — what with its lack of a head and its scattered, autonomous agents and affiliate groups. But participants in the movement do typically exhibit a solidarity and unity of purpose, and major developments, ops, and actions are spread and promoted by major websites and Twitter feeds like @YourAnonNews (which at the time of this writing has over 560,000 followers). Anonymous affiliates and other opponents of the legislation have even started the hash tag #ButthurtLaw, in a playful trolling of the law’s anti-cyberbullying pretext. To show your opposition to the bill, you can even fax a fictional “Butthurt Report Form” to your favorite member of the Arizona state Legislature, or to the Governor herself. The form, which can be downloaded from the YourAnonNews tumblr, looks exactly like this:
While Anonymous was off aggressively trolling in attempt to preserve the fine art of trolling for future generations of trolls, Media Coalition’s Executive Director, David Horowitz, recently drafted a letter to Arizona Governor Janice Brewer [pdf link], outlining the group’s stance against the bill and openly requesting a veto. The opening lines:
The members of Media Coalition believe that Section 1 of House Bill 2549 plainly violates the First Amendment. We acknowledge that the bill passed with very little opposition despite our efforts to raise our concerns. Nonetheless, we respectfully ask you to veto H.B. 2549 and allow legislators to craft a narrower bill that addresses their concerns without infringing on the right of free speech.
Paragraph two attacks the bill’s vagueness, and its lack of definition for several key terms. “The legislation offers no definitions for “annoy,” “offend,” “harass” or “terrify,” writes Media Coalition. “Electronic or digital device” is defined only as any wired or wireless communication device and multimedia storage device.”
The letter continues to object to a widening of the bill’s scope from its origins as an anti phone harassment law. Media Coalition argues that there is a distinct difference between one-to-one telephone conversations of a harassing nature and the often offensive but not singularly focused or targeting foul language of the internet.
Then follow a full two pages of precedents demonstrating the bill’s lack of solid legal ground. Media Coalition also cites numerous examples of creative, artistic, or generally useful protected speech that would be illegal under HB 2549. Examples range from the Halloween films, to Anne Coulter’s books, to online taunting between fans of rival sports teams. While I, for one, could live happily in a world where Anne Coulter chose not to publish her books, I could not live happily in a world where she lacked the right to do so.
The letter closes with a warning that a failure to veto the bill could be costly for the state: “Passage of this unconstitutionally overbroad and vague bill could prove costly. If a court declares it unconstitutional, there is a good possibility that the state will be ordered to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees. In a previous case brought by members of Media Coalition the state agreed to pay fees of $245,000.”
Media Coalition’s letter has been circulating around the Internet, even getting picked up and tweeted by @YourAnonNews. It’s a heartwarming display of solidarity between representatives of often mutually antagonistic groups — proof that, in the battle for freedom on the Internet, even enemies can sometimes unite under the banner of free speech and shooting down dumb, poorly researched legislation.