A controversial law on “cyberbullying” that was enacted last year will be revised in an attempt to assure its constitutionality under a rewrite sent to the governor by the Senate.
Senators debated the bill (HB2641) only about 10 minutes before giving it unanimous approval. The House had a prolonged and spirited debate that included defeat of disabling amendments by Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge.
The rewrite bill was brought by Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, who had sponsored the 2011 law that drew heavy criticism after passage. Acknowledging their first effort raised constitutional questions, sponsors worked with the attorney general’s office, the American Civil Liberties Union and others to draft a rewrite.
The idea is to have electronic communications covered by the state’s anti-harassment law. The problem, the sponsors said, was that the 2010 law made it a crime to send an electronic communication that would “frighten, intimidate, or cause emotional distress.” That was deemed too vague. The rewrite basically changes that to simply “threaten harm.”
The need for such a law was illustrated by four suicides by Tennessee teenagers in the past year “all pointing to cyberbullying,” Ketron said.
In the House, Ragan led opposition and filed amendments, including one that would have repealed the general anti-harassment law that has been on the books since 1989.
Ragan said the law could be used to prosecute the display of religious symbols and brought to the floor a sheet with 11 printed symbols as examples. They included a swastika, which he said was used by some American Indians in ceremonies, and a cross with a flame, which he said was the symbol of the United Methodist Church.
Curtiss said Ragan was confusing “threaten” with “offend.”
The Ragan amendment was defeated 65-28. After defeat of that and another Ragan amendment, the bill itself was approved 76-14.
News release from Senate Republican Caucus:
(NASHVILLE, TN), April 27, 2012 — The Senate has approved legislation, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) and Representative Charles Curtiss (D-Sparta), that revises a law passed last year regarding cyberbullying through the use of electronic devices. Senate Bill 2556 removes the words “frighten, intimidate, or cause emotional distress” to a victim in the state’s current cyberbullying law and replaces them with the word “threaten.”
Ketron said he enlisted the help of Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper and other legal experts in revising the law to meet constitutional muster, while maintaining the focus on deterring bullying through electronic means. The revision limits the offense of harassment by display of an image to cases in which the defendant communicates without legitimate purpose with the intent that it will be viewed by the victim with the malicious intent to threaten them. “It must also be in a manner in which the defendant knows or reasonably should know, would threaten a similarly situated person,” he said.
The Murfreesboro Daily News Journal reports that Sen. Bill Ketron is alarmed by the two Middle Tennessee teenagers committing suicide, apparently after being the target of bullying because of their sexual orientation. And he has an idea on what to do about it. Ketron sponsored a bill that passed in 2011 extending the state’s harassment statutes to offensive messages posted on the Internet. The law ran afoul of First Amendment defenders, including film critic Roger Ebert, so this session Ketron is backing two pieces of legislation to strengthen it.
“The main goal is to combat cyberbullying and prevent tragedies like the ones which have occurred recently in Tennessee from taking place,” Ketron said in a written statement.
The Murfreesboro Republican committed to making the law stronger last year and said the new legislation was drafted to prepare for an amendment that will make its wording better. He said he is meeting with the attorney general, ACLU-TN Executive Director Hedy Weinberg and others to address legal issues.
Citing a need for the law, Ketron points to examples of bullying that are shocking local communities, including the suicide of a 14-year-old Gordonsville boy who killed himself this month after being bullied constantly for being gay….. In December, a gay Ashland City teen also committed suicide because of bullying he received at Cheatham County High School.
From an article in Metro Pulse: Over the past week, you might have seen this headline from Gizmodo floating around your social networks: “Tennessee Just Made Offensive Online Pictures Illegal.” Yes, influential bloggers and tweeters across the country are yet again making fun of Tennessee. The problem is, very few of them seem to have bothered to read the law.
Take that Gizmodo post, which says “an online image of anything that offends anyone is now illegal” and likely to land you in a Tennessee jail. Or Ars Technica, which writes, “for image postings, the ’emotionally distressed’ individual need not be the intended recipient. Anyone who sees the image is a potential victim.” Sounds like a reason to panic, right? But it turns out these comments are off base.
…In an e-mail, University of Tennessee law Professor Glenn Reynolds says he thinks the law is “probably overbroad and thus unconstitutional–though whether it’s sufficiently overbroad to be unconstitutional in general, and not just in some applications isn’t open-and-shut, but it probably is.”
But, Reynolds adds, “Cyberstalking is a real problem, and it’s often hard to get authorities to do much even when it’s by phone or e-mail. This statute isn’t–as some have portrayed it as being–some sort of crazy ban on all offensive images. It’s a perfectly reasonable technological update that just isn’t very well drafted.”
Of course, anyone filing a complaint because he or she is offended by a random Internet image will have to go through the whole criminal process. Somehow, it seems unlikely that law enforcement authorities across the state will suddenly devote their already stretched resources to pursuing spurious claims of harassment from citizens offended by their local newspaper’s website.
In any case, the newly changed law seems most likely to end up being challenged in court before we see any of the worst-case scenarios dreamed up by bloggers.
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.”
The House and Senate have approved two bills presented as ways to combat “cyberbullying,” defined as the use of electronic devices to intentionally inflict emotional distress or fear of physical harm.
One of the bills, HB301, amends the state’s general law, which makes harassment or intimidation of another person a misdemeanor, to include electronic communication via email, text messages, website postings and the like. It also declares that law enforcement officers and prosecutors can demand records from operators of social networks and other service providers to determine the origin of an electronic communication.
The bill passed the Senate 29-1 on Thursday after being amended to make a conviction punishable by community service work only. It passed the House earlier 76-18, but now returns to that body for concurrence on the Senate amendment.
The sponsors, Democratic Rep. Charles Curtiss of Sparta and Republican Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro, said the measure will help law enforcement officers track down offenders and clarify current law to assure it covers electronically transmitted threats that cause “emotional distress” or a reasonable fear of bodily harm.
Most criticism focused on concerns that the bill is too broad and could interfere with free speech. Among the opponents was Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge.
“I do not think we ought to limit free speech of our citizens just because someone is offended,” he said.
The other bill, HB300, gives school boards the authority to take disciplinary action against students who engage in “cyberbulling” against another student or students, even if the acts in question were committed off a school campus.
It inspired considerably less debate and passed 87-8 in the House, 29-1 in the Senate. The measure, also sponsored by Curtiss and Ketron, now goes to the governor.
(Note: The Senate vote count was initially stated as 30-0 on this post. It has been corrected to 29-1. The sole no vote came from Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville.)