They may be known for their bigoted, rude and downright obscene behavior, but Internet trolls are an essential part of the worldwide web. They keep message boards interesting and force many an individual to step away from the computer. (If you were being baited by an Internet troll, you'd need to quell the urge to throw your monitor, too.)
Nonetheless, it seems a just-passed Arizona bill may soon criminalize such behavior. If signed by Governor Jan Brewer, the law would effectively make Internet trolling illegal.
The legislation in question, Arizona House Bill 2549, is an update to the state's telecommunications law, according to Gizmodo. It expands the law to include all electronic and digital devices as opposed to just telephone calls. If signed, the statute will read as follows:
It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use 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.
These sorts of statements are the life's blood of an Internet troll.
The main problem with this law is that it fails to define any of its terms. What does it mean to "annoy," "offend," and "terrify"? What is "profane language" or a "lewd or lascivious act"? If we took these terms at face value, we'd undoubtedly find that at least some of the proscribed behavior is constitutionally protected.
Has the Supreme Court not upheld the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to annoy funeral-goers with what they may consider to be profane language ("God Hates Fags)? Did it not just protect gruesome and lascivious depictions of animal cruelty?
If Arizona wants to outlaw bona fide online harassment and threats, then it is constitutionally free to do so. But it's doubtful that, in the process, it can make everyday Internet trolling illegal.
- Arizona Looks to Outlaw Internet Trolling (TIME)
- U.S. Supreme Court Rejects California Video Game Law (FindLaw's Supreme Court Blog)
- iHate: Westboro Baptist Church Plans to Protest Steve Jobs Funeral (FindLaw's Supreme Court Blog)