A bill passed by the Arizona legislature and now sitting on the desk of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer (R) would make it illegal to be annoying on the internet — at least in ways that are deemed “lewd” or “profane.” H.B 2549 has solicited outrage from free speech groups and Arizona bloggers alike, who rightly point out that the bill denies them their basic freedom of speech.
As proposed by Arizona lawmakers, the bill amends a previous law to expand an already unconstitutional ban on telephone speech that might offend someone else to the Internet:
It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use a telephone ANY ELECTRONIC OR DIGITAL DEVICE and use any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act, or threaten to inflict physical harm to the person or property of any person. It is also unlawful to otherwise disturb by repeated anonymous telephone calls ELECTRONIC OR DIGITAL COMMUNICATIONS the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person at the place where the telephone call or calls COMMUNICATIONS were received.
There should be no doubt that the law is unconstitutional, and that it builds upon an unconstitutional framework. The First Amendment does not permit the government to enact speech bans that rest on vague terms such as “lewd” or “annoy,” regardless of whether the speech takes place in person, on the phone, or on the Internet.
Moreover, there is something comical and cowardly about lawmakers fretting that, somewhere on the Internet, someone is annoyed by a dirty word. The U.S. Supreme Court protected free speech in Brandenburg v. Ohio for members of the Ku Klux Klan. In the recent decision of Snyder v. Phelps, they preserved the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to wave signs that say “God Hates Fags” at military funerals. If America can handle that kind of hateful speech, it can handle a few annoying words.