Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Arizona House Bill 2549: Poorly Worded

I'm trying to get worked up about Arizona House Bill 2549:

It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use a 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.

It's one of those anti-bullying, anti-meanness, anti-fun bills aimed at making the world a better place through legally stymieing the actions of assholes. As an asshole, I feel like I ought to be upset by this bill. But rather than be upset, I'm just fixated on its wording. Let's break this thing into two parts:

1: "It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend..."

2: "...to use a 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."

I'm not sure how these two parts fit together.

Part 1 addresses the intent behind an act. It links illegality with various states of mind. If Arizona wants to quash the intent to threaten or offend, then all they would need is this portion of the bill: It is unlawful to have the intent to threaten.

But, of course, it's very difficult to discern intent independent of an act. So, they include part 2. Part 2 addresses acts of "suggesting" or "threatening". But if the acts that threaten people are of concern, why does the intent, of Part 1, matter?

Suppose a person likes the sound of the phrase, "I'm going to smash your cock." They don't have an intent to terrify, threaten, or offend; they just like how the phrase sounds, or looks when typed out. Suppose they text the phrase to many persons so those persons can enjoy the aesthetic qualities of "I'm going to smash your cock".

Their intent is to communicate an aesthetic quality. So, part 1 doesn't apply. But "I'm going to smash your cock" does seem to be a lewd act, and it can be perceived as a threat of physical harm. So, part 2 applies. Would this situation be one of illegality, if the Bill passes?

Or, more applicable to my hobby, what if one intends to annoy someone, but they do so by linguistic utterances that are not obscene, lewd, profane, or suggest any such act, or threaten to inflict physical harm? Would this be illegal?

The Kotaku article states that some are worried that the wording of this bill is overly broad, such that it would make actions on 4chan or Reddit illegal. My worry is that the bill isn't so much broadly worded as much as it is terribly worded. Given how the law is written, someone without any of the listed intents is fine to commit the listed acts. Likewise, someone with the intent to annoy or offend could continue to do so, provided that their acts were not lewd or threatening.

The law doesn't prevent bullying or harassment; it just requires that bullies and assholes be more creative.

Which is fine.


Caleb said...

Following the link, what is striking is that they just did a search/replace "telephone" for "ANY ELECTRONIC DEVICE." I can't decide if that is that a 1 for 1 swap or not.

_J_ said...

Yeah, it's a strange way to craft legislation.

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