Arizona residents might have to think twice before they decide to leave a scathing comment on an inane article they read online because that comment could soon be considered a form of cyberbullying. An anti-cyberbullying bill that recently passed in Arizona is extremely broad and could authorize arrests for those who write inappropriate comments on social media and news sites. While it’s crucial that lawmakers do as much as possible to end cyberbullying, a line needs to be drawn between personally harassing and emotionally harming an individual and expressing one’s beliefs through digital means.
The Arizona Legislature passed amendments to House Bill 2549 earlier this month, which revised the state’s telephone harassment law. This new language applies to a wide variety of dialogue transmitted over “electronic or digital communications.” If “annoying or offending” language is used, it could send offenders to jail for up to six months. While the amendment has good intentions, its language is broad and full of loopholes, making it potentially harmful to those who engage in online discussion, limiting First Amendment rights.
Cyberbullying has become increasingly prevalent among young people and needs to be taken seriously. Laws like these are progressive, and aim to prevent personal harm from occurring on the Internet. The Internet is a space less easily controlled by parents, so some regulations are necessary to protect children and teenagers. However, this law goes a step too far.
The language of this amendment contains many loopholes, making it easy for there to be frivolous lawsuits against minor occurrences. Speech formerly protected by the Constitution will now be criminalized. For example, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R–Iowa) recently called President Barack Obama “stupid” on Twitter. This comment could be considered offensive and annoying, possibly making it illegal under Arizona law. If this law was widespread, millions of comments like this would be illegal and many visible, important people could be prosecuted.
This is not the first law in Arizona that is controversial. This year, Arizona has passed laws that limit ethnic minorities’ rights and that took overwhelmingly conservative measures such as banning ethnic studies classes in schools. A bill was even passed that prohibits medical malpractice lawsuits against doctors who keep information from a woman which might convince her to have an abortion. These laws and others represent a problematic trend of increasingly conservative laws being passed in Arizona.
Cyberbulling and stalking are extremely serious issues that must be addressed. The government has the crucial responsibility to prevent this type of behavior, as it is hard for parents and family members to control. However, this amendment’s language is too broad, and it limits citizens’ right to free speech. Trying to combat the serious problem of cyberbullying is commendable, but the bill’s vague language seriously oversteps the fine line between protecting youth from personally offensive language and restraining people’s ability to express their opinions.