The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, is opposing legislation that would make it a crime to "harass or annoy" people via email, Web posts or virtually any other use of a computer or electronic device.
Senate Bill 456, An Act Concerning Harassment, Electronic Harassment and Cyberstalking, was one of several bills considered by the state legislature's Judiciary Committee at a hearing Thursday in the Legislative Office Building.
The legislation attempts to criminalize speech that is constitutionally protected and it fails to offer additional protection to the victims of criminal harassment or threatening.
"With this bill the legislature is attempting to prohibit all kinds of speech that have long been protected by the First Amendment," said Sandra Staub, legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut. "If this bill becomes law, someone who makes a statement intending to annoy another person and who causes substantial embarrassment to that other person by emailing or posting the statement on the Internet will be subject to criminal prosecution."
"Whether on the Internet, on the radio or with in-person heckling, our Constitution protects our right to be annoying and to cause embarrassment to others," Staub said. "Our legal system already provides for intervention for true threats and harassment, as those crimes have been defined. This bill does nothing new besides create a new and powerful way to chill a substantial amount of speech protected by the First Amendment."
The bill specifically prohibits any electronic communication regarding any person that:
• Has a substantial and detrimental effect on that person's physical or mental health;
• Has the effect of substantially interfering with that person's academic performance, employment or other community activities or responsibilities;
• Has the effect of substantially interfering with that person's ability to participate in or benefit from any academic, professional or community-based services, activities or privileges; or
• Has the effect of causing substantial embarrassment or humiliation to that person within an academic or professional community
"Who defines what constitutes ‘substantial embarrassment or humiliation?' Or ‘substantial interference with academic performance?' " Staub asked. "A middle-schooler? A governor? The police officer who takes the complaint? The prosecutor? What if a truthful statement of fact posted on the Internet causes the embarrassment? There is no satisfactory answer to these questions and the bill does not even try to answer them. It is unconstitutionally vague."
Chris VanDeHoef, executive director of the Connecticut Daily Newspapers Association, also testified against the bill. "If a news reporter were to post a story that is factual, but potentially embarrassing to another person, they might be in violation of this section if the embarrassed person can prove there was an 'intent to harass or annoy,' " he said.
- March 29, 2012
Sandra Staub's Testimony on Senate Bill 456
Hartford Courant: Critics: Harassment Bill Would Criminalize Free Speech