MURFREESBORO — Rutherford County legislators say they will consider amending a law designed to stop “cyber bullying” if it is so broadly worded it harms free speech.
State Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, told a recent audience of the 9.12 Project Rutherford County he asked the attorney general to determine whether the law infringes on free speech, according to a Tennessee Report video of the event.
He also said the Legislature asked state attorneys last session if his bill would violate the First Amendment.
“We were told it doesn’t. And I still stand to be corrected,” Ketron said. “If it does, we’ll change it, because that was not the intent. The intent was to keep these kids from destroying other kids’ lives.”
The ACLU of Tennessee, which plans to file a lawsuit against the legislation, contends Public Chapter 362 violates free speech and expression guaranteed by the First Amendment. Ketron’s legislation is set to take effect Friday.
The ACLU says the law would make it a crime to post any image online that causes “emotional distress” to a person. Even though it was intended to curb online harassment, the law is too broad and sets no definitions for offensive or disturbing speech or images, the ACLU’s statement says.
“This new law creates a chilling effect on expressive political, artistic, and otherwise lawful speech and also turns political activists, artists and others into criminals,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director, in the release. “In addition, anyone with an online presence, such as social media users, becomes vulnerable.”
At last week’s 9.12 Project gathering at Maple Street Grill in Murfreesboro, Ketron said he decided to sponsor the measure because he had seen TV reports about a Texas high school cheerleader who committed suicide after being bullied on Facebook by the mother of a friend who didn’t make the cheerleading squad.
Years ago, people would make scurrilous remarks about someone by writing on a bathroom wall, Ketron said, but today that same type of harassment is being done on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
“It goes all over and they network, and now it’s Skyping that is occurring, and that’s why we thought we needed to address the issue of today of issues that didn’t exist five years ago,” Ketron said in the video. Skype is a software application that allows users to make Internet voice and video calls and chats.
Ketron said the law is one of only 20 in the state that requires an act to be intentional, meaning the “distress of the communications, images, etc., must be targeted at a specific victim or individual. The act of harassment must produce the intended distress from the victim that was targeted.”
State Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, who voted for the bill in an overwhelmingly bipartisan show of support, said he initially had concerns about broad wording in the bill but changed his mind after listening to Ketron and House sponsor Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta. Carr said he considered it to be an “anti-bullying bill in cyberspace,” not “anti-free speech.”
“If one of the unintended consequences is limiting free speech, we need to tighten it up,” Carr said.
The law requires proof to be shown that an individual intended to harm someone else, which is a high standard, Carr noted.
Just as free speech can’t be used as a defense to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, it shouldn’t be used to defend cyber-bullying, Carr said. He pointed out that Internet stalking can intend to harm someone while casual use of free speech on the Web typically causes no harm.
Former GOP congressional candidate Lou Ann Zelenik said she is worried the law, despite good intentions to protect children, opens the door for people to be sued and charged with a criminal offense for exercising free speech rights on the Internet.
The former Rutherford County Republican Party chairman said she has been the target of Internet blogs, but even if she didn’t like what they wrote, she doesn’t want to take away that right.
“That’s a freedom we share, as Americans, and that’s something I don’t want legislators concerning themselves with,” said Zelenik, who attended the 9.12 gathering.
Ketron told last week’s audience the Legislature removed a $2,500 fine for those under 18 and opted to require only 30 hours of community service.
“If you’re doing it and get caught doing it, and it’s specifically intended and targeted toward a person, I hope the judge makes you clean bathroom floors,” he said.
Ketron said he would wait on the attorney general’s opinion before taking further action, but noted, “let me assure you there was no intent from inside of me to remove anything that our country stands for that our forefathers brought to us.”