from the if-intent-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder dept
Like many bad laws, I'm sure this bill lying on the Utah governor's desk has its heart in the right place. But, like many bad laws, its head is completely up its ass. Eugene Volokh reports there's Yet Another Cyberbullying Bill on the threshold of passage. Like many that have come before it, it's full of constitutional issues and easily-abusable language.
Here’s Utah SB118, which passed both houses of the legislature unanimously and is awaiting the governor’s signature:
A person is guilty of electronic communication harassment and subject to prosecution in the jurisdiction where the communication originated or was received if with intent to intimidate, abuse, threaten, harass, frighten, or disrupt the electronic communications of another, the person: …
(e) electronically publishes, posts, or otherwise discloses personal identifying information of another person, in a public online site or forum, without that person’s permission.
This sounds like it's meant to deter doxing. But that's only if you don't read the section detailing "personal identifying information," which includes such innocuous items as "names" or "photos." In between everything else no one should be posting online without that person's permission (Social Security number, driver's license number, "electronic identification number," etc.) are bits of "personal information" that could criminalize a great number of social media posts.
So if someone posts something in Utah that is intended to insult a politician or engages in “excessive and unfounded criticism, humiliation, and denigration” of the politician, that would be a crime — it would be “electronically … post[ing]” “personal identifying information” (the target’s name) without his permission and with the intent to “abuse” (or perhaps “harass,” especially if one does it several times). After all, “personal identifying information” may include a person’s name.
Likewise if someone sharply condemns some government official, indicating the place where the official works (e.g., “Judge X in Courthouse Y is biased and incompetent”). Likewise if someone illustrates an article harshly critical of some official, businessperson, celebrity or anyone else with the person’s photograph.
To their credit, legislators at least trimmed back a bit of the broad language before passage, keeping it from criminalizing posts that merely "annoyed" or "offended" complainants. But what's left in it still carries huge potential for abuse. And it will be abused if allowed to pass. It won't protect the hundreds of people who've been targeted, harassed, and doxed, but it will give the powerful yet another tool to deploy to shut down critics. It won't be normal citizens availing themselves of this law first. It will be politicians, government officials, law enforcement officers -- basically anyone with more power than skin thickness.
Hopefully, it will be vetoed. But it received support from both sides of Utah's legislature, and Utah's government has been known to humor laughable/harmful legislation with alarming frequency. Should it receive the governor's signature, it will swiftly find itself on the receiving end of a temporary restraining order while the state's court determines its constitutionality. As written, it's unlikely to survive this scrutiny.