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Arizona law would criminalize being lewd or annoying on the Internet

The Arizona state legislature apparently finds it difficult to tell the difference between a telephone and the Internet and has passed a bill that would extend the definition of harassment originally devised for phone conversations to anything communicated or published online.

As summarized by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, “The bill is sweepingly broad, and would make it a crime to communicate via electronic means speech that is intended to ‘annoy,’ ‘offend,’ ‘harass’ or ‘terrify,’ as well as certain sexual speech. Because the bill is not limited to one-to-one communications, H.B. 2549 would apply to the Internet as a whole, thus criminalizing all manner of writing, cartoons, and other protected material the state finds offensive or annoying.”

The bill is currently awaiting Governor Jan Brewer’s signature, and the Media Coalition, which defends first amendment rights in the media, has sent her a letter outlining some of the problems with the legislation.

“H.B. 2549 would make it a crime to use any electronic or digital device to communicate using obscene, lewd or profane language or to suggest a lewd or lascivious act if done with intent to ‘annoy,’ ‘offend,’ ‘harass’ or ‘terrify,’” the letter notes. … ‘Lewd’ and ‘profane’ are not defined in the statute or by reference. ‘Lewd’ is generally understood to mean lusty or sexual in nature and ‘profane’ is generally defined as disrespectful or irreverent about religion or religious practices.”

It appears that the Arizona law could criminalize the recent interview in which Meghan McCain — daughter of Arizona senator John McCaintold Playboy, “I’m strictly dickly. I can’t help it. I love sex and I love men.” Or any random atheist saying, “There is no god” — provided some official was prepared to conclude it was done with the intention of annoying believers.

The letter goes on to condemn the law for its broadness, saying, “H.B. 2549 is not limited to a one to one conversation between two specific people. The communication does not need to be repetitive or even unwanted. There is no requirement that the recipient or subject of the speech actually feel offended, annoyed or scared. Nor does the legislation make clear that the communication must be intended to offend or annoy the reader, the subject or even any specific person.”

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is particularly alarmed, because comic books often have the explicit purpose of challenging prejudices and preconceptions — and have often been subject to censorship attempts in the past.

“If passed, the law could create vulnerabilities for cartoonists and publishers who publish material online intended to shock, satirize, and criticize,” the group writes. “Beyond the example of the Mohammad cartoons listed in the Media Coalition letter, the taboo-pushing work of cartoonists like’R. Crumb, Johnny Ryan, and Ivan Brunetti would potentially be vulnerable to prosecution, as could incendiary works such as Frank Miller?s Holy Terror and Dave Sim?s Cerebus. Similarly, the culture of message boards, within and beyond comics, would be imperiled.”

Photo of exhibition of’R. Crumb comics by workinpana via Flickr

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