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Arizona bill could make writing an annoying or offensive electronic statement a misdemeanor

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Arizona legislators say they are limiting the language of a controversial proposed bill that criminalizes speech via "electronic or digital…

Arizona legislators say they are limiting the language of a controversial proposed bill that criminalizes speech via "electronic or digital device" that could, among other things, "offend or annoy" someone else.

The bill passed the Arizona house and senate in March, but is now back on the floor after First Amendment advocates complained that the bill's language was too broad.

Arizona State Rep. Ted Vogt, the bill’s primary sponsor, could not be reached for comment. But in an interview with The Huffington Post, Vogt said the amendment will make it clear that the law would exempt Constitutionally protected speech.

If the amendment is passed, it goes forward to Gov. Janice Brewer for approval.

Frank LoMonte, executive director at the Student Press Law Center, said, in order for the bill to be salvaged, legislators would have to write in some type of Constitutional "out clause", stating that Constitutionally protected speech would not apply. The bill would also have to limit the scope of the statute to "individually directed one-to-one communications," he said.

House Bill 2549 was created to expand a current statute preventing harassment over the telephone to include “any electronic or digital device” and makes it “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.”

Anyone found guilty could be charged with a misdemeanor, fined up to $2,500, and face six months in jail. The bill's intention is to curb cyber bullying.

Media Coalition, an association dedicated to protecting First Amendment interests, wrote a letter to Brewer asking that she veto the bill. The letter stated, “H.B. 2549 does not define many of its terms adequately to distinguish between protected speech and the traditional narrow crime of harassment.”

The bill, if passed, would also give Arizona the jurisdiction to prosecute someone outside of the state because it gives authority to charge someone who committed an offense at either the place where the communication originated or where it was received, according to the bill.

This could impose a substantial chilling effect everywhere because "it appears that as long as the speech annoys you in Arizona it triggers liability," LoMonte said. "If you cast a blog post that is readable in Arizona — even though it is readable in Thailand, too — and it offends someone, theoretically it could trigger criminal proceedings in Arizona."

Arizona is not the only state proposing such legislation, LoMonte said. Kentucky, Alabama, Rhode Island and Connecticut have all proposed similar legislation.

"There has been so much publicity around the subject of bullying that legislators are feeling the pressure to crack down on what used to be understood as protected speech," he said.