Scott Tibbs
blog post
January 11th, 2005

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So annoying people is a crime now?

We need a new Constitutional amendment to ban the legislative bait-and-switch where members of Congress attach unrelated amendments to an omnibus bill in order to make it harder to defeat those amendments. The "Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act of 2005" is another example of why such an amendment is needed. As an added benefit, it would cut down on pork barrel spending.

Here is a column on the reauthorization of the VAWA. (VAWA is questionable in the first place because it federalizes law enforcement, but unfortunately there are not many constitutionalists in Washington.) The Hammer of Truth has posted another (profanity-laced) commentary.

Here's the language:
"Whoever...utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet... without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person...who receives the communications...shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both."
Just think of the possibilities. If an anonymous poster on a local message board criticizes the City Council, that communication could be deemed in violation of federal law. Bloomington is a relatively small city of about 70,000 people, but nonetheless has a very active presence on the Internet.

What about newspapers that publish anonymous editorials? Considering the number of newspapers that publish their archives to the Internet, could they be in danger of federal action against them? Could the Herald-Times be subject to prison for annoying members of the City Council with this editorial?

Yes, some cowards abuse anonymity to post nasty personal attacks, libel others, or spew hateful personal attacks. But one advantage to anonymous speech is it brings an honesty that you may not get when people use their real names. It allows people to freely speak their mind and criticize elected officials and public figures without fear of retribution. Because of the open dialogue anonymity brings, the Supreme Court has held that the right to anonymous speech is protected under the First Amendment.

As many others have pointed out, the word "annoy" is so broad it could criminalize virtually all anonymous speech on the Internet, from political blogs to discussion forums on music. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will strike down this law as an egregious violation of the First Amendment. Unfortunately, we cannot count on the courts to properly interpret the Constitution, as we have seen many times over.