Tweet a lie, go to jail?
Creating a Twitter or Facebook account to maliciously impersonate someone could trigger criminal charges if a pending Arizona bill becomes law.
That worries defenders of the 1st Amendment, who say unscrupulous prosecutors might use the measure to intimidate anyone engaged in political parody and satire.
Supporters of House Bill 2004 say it’s aimed at identity theft. Anyone who poses as someone else online without authorization and with the “intent to harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten” could be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony. The top penalty: 2 1/2 years behind bars.
The Legislature is not yet in session, so support for the bill is hard to gauge. Gov. Jan Brewer did not respond to a request for comment.
Republican Rep. Michelle Ugenti of Scottsdale prefiled the measure in December after one of her constituents fell victim to someone using a fake online account to attack him, said Brian Townsend, senior policy advisor to the Republicans at the state House of Representatives.
The bill would not target people who pose as others as a form of satire, he told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s about identify theft.”
But 1st Amendment watchdogs are doubtful. Anjali Abraham, public policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said her group is studying the legislation.
“But any time you do a bill that implicates 1st Amendment rights, you have to be really cautious about the wording to make sure that you’re not sweeping up behavior that is protected by the Constitution, and we have some concerns that this bill could do that,” Abraham told The Times. “Because there is possible jail time attached, it makes it more important that the Legislature get it right.”
The crux of the debate involves intent, said Kurt Opsahl, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which defends civil rights in the digital world.
“The key is the ‘intent to harm,’” Opsahl told The Times. “You can imagine someone saying, ‘Well, if you are making a parody of someone else and you are trying to make fun of them and hold them up to ridicule, that would be an attempt to harm them and thus would be within the coverage of the bill. That is the concern.”
Opsahl thinks any judge would reject an interpretation of the law that targeted parody. But, he said, “The concern is whether overzealous prosecutors would use this language to intimidate somebody. ... The concern is that this would have a chilling effect” on lawful activity.
Townsend said the Arizona legislation was copied from a Texas law. “The bill didn’t have any opposition in Texas,” he said.