When White County Sheriff Oddie J. Shoupe heard that a murder-suicide had apparently been triggered by an anonymous blog posting on the female murder victim’s sexual relations, he contacted his state legislator.
“I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for him,” said Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, who proceeded to join with Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro in sponsoring two bills to address what they saw as a shortcoming in the state’s current criminal law.
“If somebody calls you every morning at 3 o’clock, just to wake you up and yell at you, you’d have a remedy — change your phone number or, if they’re saying something really bad, you could get law enforcement involved. There’s already a harassment statute on the books,” Curtiss said.
“But now we’ve got these websites where people can post anything they want, anonymously. They can say you’re a pedophile, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.”
One of the bills, HB300, revises the current anti-harassment statute to include electronic communications that cause “emotional distress” or “a reasonable fear of bodily harm,” punishable for adults as a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 11 months, 29 days in jail and/or a $2,500 fine. For minors, the bill characterizes the conduct as a “delinquent act” with a maximum penalty of 30 hours community service work.
The bill also declares that a harassment victim, in cooperation with law enforcement and a local district attorney, can obtain a court order requiring the Internet service provider or website to provide all “technologically feasible” information to identify the person or persons responsible for the offending post on a website or social media.
The second bill, HB301, declares that school systems can discipline a student for intimidating or harassing via electronic communications. Both passed by lopsided margins and have been signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam, taking effect July 1.
In the Senate, HB300 passed 29-1 with the sole dissenting vote cast by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville. (Note: original post mistakenly gave vote as 30-1.)
“I just thought it was too vague, that we were setting a dangerous precedent,” said Bell. “I think it could potentially be used to quash free speech. … Lots of things that happen in the normal course of events can cause emotional distress, but I don’t know that we ought to criminalize that.”
For example, Bell cited a website posting during the 2010 Republican gubernatorial campaign of the mug shot taken of U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp when he was arrested as a college student on a charge — subsequently dismissed — involving an argument in a nightclub.
“That could have caused emotional distress. … Is that cyberbullying?” he said. Proponents of the legislation described the measure as an effort to control cyberbullying.
“What affects you (in causing emotional distress) may not even cause me to raise an eyebrow,” Bell said. “That’s all too subjective. … We don’t need to create a situation where law enforcement is going on a witch hunt because somebody got their feelings hurt.”
Several bloggers discovered the bill last week, resulting in a new round of interest. Apparently, that interest started with Nashville Scene blogger Brantley Hargrove’s posting on Tuesday that began: “Gov. Bill Haslam signed into law this month a measure that could make posting a picture on Facebook or a blog a crime.” Hargrove’s posting included the Wamp photo cited by Bell.
Curtiss said he received several media calls on the matter last week and suspects that the bloggers had not noticed that the bill was revised in the legislative process to soften the initial language. Some contended the new law is unconstitutional. Curtiss said the concerns are exaggerated, and he would welcome a challenge.
It appears legislative staff, in calculating whether the new law would increase governmental costs in locking up offenders, agreed with Curtiss.
“There will not be a sufficient number of additional prosecutions due to the broadening of this offense (the harassment statute) for state or local government to experience any significant increase in revenue or expenditures,” says the “fiscal note” on the bill, as amended.
Shoupe said he is ready and willing to enforce the new law that he inspired.
“I’m a Vietnam vet. I know that, as an American, you have rights to speak out,” he said. “But if you’re going to say something, you ought to own up to it. And if it’s a lie, you ought to be accountable.”
With the new law, Shoupe said, a method is available for an offended individual to take his or her complaint to authorities and at least have some hope of finding — and prosecuting as a misdemeanor — the person responsible.
“Before making a wrongful statement, people ought to know there are consequences,” Shoupe said. “We’re going to follow up on this, by the letter of the law.
“After July 1, we’re going to hammer them. I guarantee it.”
See also the Richard Locker report.