In their never-ending quest to make Connecticut a less annoying place, state legislators — apparently having solved unemployment, crime and school funding — have trained their sights on annoying speech.
A bill introduced March 22 by the Senate Judiciary Committee — which is up for a hearing in that committee Thursday — would create the new misdemeanor criminal offense of “Electronic Harassment.” (Note to Dave Barry: “Electronic Harassment” would be an exceptional name for a band.)
A person would be guilty of the crime of “Electronic Harassment” under the following conditions: (1) Transmitting information over any electronic medium (anything from radio to the Web to texting), (2) that is based on a person’s “actual or perceived traits or characteristics,” (3) that causes a person “substantial embarrassment or humiliation within an academic or professional community,” and (4) is done with an intent to “annoy” or “alarm” the person.
Read that carefully, and think about how much First Amendment real estate it covers.
For example … how about this Al Franken column, “Rush Limbaugh is still a big fat idiot.” Transmitted electronically? Check. Based on traits or characteristics? Argue amongst yourselves whether they are “actual” or “perceived.” Causing substantial humiliation? If it is possible for Rush Limbaugh to feel humiliation, definitely. Done with an intent to annoy? Oh, at the very least.
Stay clear of Connecticut, Senator Franken — or bring your checkbook, since SB 456 carries up to a $2,000 fine, with the possibility of a year in jail.
For being annoying.
The bill is just at its first committee hurdle, and Connecticut being the home of some highly capable First Amendment attorneys, someone will surely flag its obvious constitutional infirmities. A newspaper that wants to expose that a local hospital continues to employ a dubiously competent surgeon who poses a danger to patients must be absolutely certain that its reporting is legally protected speech — even if the doctor finds it “annoying” and it exposes him to “humiliation.”
If enacted, the bill almost surely would become another tool for harassment — there’s that word again — of students who use social networking sites to have a laugh at their principals’ expense, since it specifically applies to embarrassment within an “academic community.” Thanks to the Second Circuit’s ponderous ruling in Doninger v. Niehoff, principals in Connecticut have a free pass to punish just about any online speech they find irritating, so there is no guarantee that the federal courts would act reasonably to protect students against legislative overreaching.
This legislative season has brought a plethora of constitutionally unsound bills across the country directed at uncivil online speech. Adults have been slow to resist the creep of governmental authority into what students — even adult-aged graduate students — say on their private time on social networking sites. But with legislators taking aim at all citizens’ speech, voting-age adults finally have some First Amendment skin in the game.