Annoying people of Connecticut, rejoice — you’re safe for at least a year

A dangerously broad Connecticut bill that purported to criminalize remarks about a person’s “traits or characteristics” in a way that causes embarrassment is considered dead for the 2012 legislative session.

Senate Bill 456 was scheduled for action Monday in the Joint Committee on Judiciary. But warnings by free-expression groups — including the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association and ACLU of Connecticut — helped persuade lawmakers to hold the bill in committee without a vote. With the legislature scheduled to adjourn May 9, there is insufficient time for the measure to be resurrected this year.

Under the bill, a speaker could be convicted of the misdemeanor offense of “electronic harassment” for sending information over any electronic medium that is based on someone’s “actual or perceived traits or characteristics,” if the information causes someone “substantial embarrassment or humiliation” and the speaker has an intent to “annoy” or “alarm.”

The bill did not limit itself to targeted one-to-one communications such as obscene phone calls, so it opened up the possibility of prosecution even for out-of-state blog posts that simply happen to be read in Connecticut.

The measure raised the risk that a public figure ridiculed by an online editorial column or blog — for instance, an athlete criticized for reporting to training camp out of shape — might intimidate the journalist with nuisance criminal charges, regardless of whether the reporting was accurate. (Under the First Amendment, a person must prove falsity to prevail on a claim of libel, so “electronic harassment” might have provided an easier-to-prove alternative for people whose failings are truthfully exposed.)

Attorney-author Mitchell W. Pearlman, who ran the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission for 30 years, was among those to voice concern that the bill penalized too much constitutionally protected speech.

“At first the legislative committee was merely going to remove the offending language from the bill. Ultimately, the committee’s leadership apparently felt that a discussion of the changes in the bill would take too much time to explain as the committee’s deadline approached and never even called the revised bill for a vote, effectively killing it for this legislative session,” Pearlman said.

The bill is part of a wave of anti-harassment measures that legislators across the country are pursuing. A very similar bill in Arizona appeared to be headed to the governor’s desk for signature with little opposition, but has now been sent to a House-Senate conference committee where sponsors say they are receptive to changes to cure any constitutional infirmities.