'Annoying, Offending' Language Online Would Be Crime Under Arizona Bill

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'Annoying, Offending' Language Online Would Be Crime Under Arizona Bill
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'Annoying, Offending' Language Online Would Be Crime Under Arizona Bill (ABC News)

Distasteful comments and online insults are a mainstay of many social networks and online comment boards, but a new bill passed in Arizona could send people who "annoy or offend" to jail for up to six months.

House Bill 2549, which had bipartisan support, passed in the state's legislature and is awaiting one final vote on a minor "technical change" before the bill is sent to Gov. Jan Brewer.

The bill's sweeping language would severely inhibit First Amendment rights, David Horowitz, executive director of the Media Coalition in New York City, told ABCNews.com.

"Even in talk radio, saying 'I know this will offend my listeners' is a common practice. It's a tradition, speech that challenges the status quo," he said.

Horowitz said everything from Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a "slut" on his radio show to Sen. Al Franken's book, "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot" could be viewed as criminal acts if the bill becomes a law.

The bill states it would be a class one misdemeanor for anyone to "terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend" through electronic and digital devices. It does not provide definitions of the terms and what would be considered annoying or offensive.

In a letter to the governor, Horowitz urged a veto "to allow legislators to craft a narrower bill that addresses their concerns without infringing on the right of free speech."

He said her office acknowledged receiving the letter and said it would include it in a pack of materials for the governor to review before she makes her decision.

The governor's office said it would not comment until the legislation reached Brewer's desk.

State Rep. Steve Farley, one of the co-sponsors of the bill, said the intention is not to stifle free speech, but to protect victims of stalking and bullying.

"It doesn't mean that the person is instantly going to be fined or put away," Farley told ABCNews.com. "But if the judge determines it relates to other circumstances in the case then they can use this as another tool to make that decision."

Including Arizona's existing law, 38 states have enacted legislation against electronic bullying, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center.

"I'm a defender of the Constitution like anyone else, but the First Amendment doesn't give you the right to harass or terrorize someone," said Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. "This certainly doesn't or wouldn't restrict one's freedom of speech. If it does, it will be overturned."

Patchin, who primarily studies cyberbullying in the adolescent community, said he has heard from an increasing number of adults who have been victims too and welcomes the legislation.

"We need to step back and realize there is some harmful stuff that is said out there," he said. "And it really needs to be stopped."

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