Lawmakers in Arizona recently passed a sweeping -- and almost certainly unconstitutional -- bill that makes it illegal to "annoy or offend" people by using "lewd" or "profane" language online, or posting messages that "suggest any lewd or lascivious act.”
The measure is awaiting the approval of Gov. Jan Brewer, who hasn't yet said whether she intends to sign the law.
The bill extends a statute prohibiting people from making harassing telephone calls to the Web. But, as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh points out, there's a big difference between bothering a specific person on the phone and posting a message on a blog.
"Telephones are basically one-to-one devices, so a phone call that uses profane language to offend is likely meant only to offend the one recipient, rather than to persuade or inform anyone; but computers used to post Facebook messages or send Twitter messages or post blog items can offend some listeners while persuading and informing others," he writes.
Civil libertarians and media companies have been known to differ on Internet policy issues -- as the recent debates about anti-piracy bills proved. But they're in complete agreement that this bill is a bad idea.
"It annoys me that AZ passed a bill to ban annoying speech online. Luckily it's unconstitutional," tweeted Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Kurt Opshal.
The group Media Coalition -- whose members include the Recording Industry Association of America, Motion Picture Association of America and Association of American Publishers -- wrote to Brewer to urge her to reject the bill. "Speech protected by the First Amendment is often intended to offend, annoy or scare but could be prosecuted under this law," the letter states. "Much general content available in the media uses racy or profane language and is intended to offend, annoy or even terrify. Bill Maher’s stand up routines and Jon Stewart’s nightly comedy program, Ann Coulter’s books criticizing liberals and Christopher Hitchens’ expressing his disdain for religion, Stephen King’s novels or the Halloween films all could be subject to this legislation."