First Amendment concerns raised over bill to criminalize social media harassment

Civil libertarians say a push by a top Republican lawmaker to rein in online harassment is so broad that it would curb online political speech, and could even criminalize tweets by President Donald Trump.

But House Majority Leader Warren Petersen defended his proposal, House Bill 2347, which adds social media to the statute that bars using electronic communications to harass someone, as little more than bringing the law into the 21st Century.

“This could be seen as a technical correction almost. (I) just want to modernize the statute,” Petersen told the House Technology Committee Feb. 5. 

He insisted that the bill doesn’t infringe on speech protected by the First Amendment, and said its purpose is to stop cyberbullying.

Darrell Hill, the policy director for ACLU Arizona, said that while Petersen’s intentions in that respect are laudable, the bill would criminalize speech on the internet. 

Hill argued that statements by current and former politicians could become criminal under HB2347, and that it was broad enough that someone posting an offensive photo or meme they did not create on social media could get penalized. 

Petersen argued that the bill would not affect political speech, and noted that the statute already includes exceptions for constitutionally protected speech. And he said determining where that line is really isn’t a job for lawmakers. 

“Where harassment ends and the First Amendment begins is for the courts,” Petersen said. 

The bill passed along party lines with Republicans on the committee voting yes and Democratic members voting no.