Bill Would Update Telephone Harrassment Law to Include Electronic Communication

Apr 5, 2012

Legislation designed to update laws on using a telephone to harass people is causing some concern about free speech rights. 

Existing law makes it a crime to use a telephone with the intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, combined with use of obscene language or suggestions, or threat to harm. The legislation would apply that same standard to any electronic or digital communication. David Horowitz, director of the New York based Media Coalition, said that language is overbroad.

"You're transforming this from a crank call statute to something that would apply to a broad range of material that's available electronically, from e-books to blog posts to Twitter, all of which at times people use to communicate with intent to annoy or offend," said Horowitz.

Representative Ted Vogt said he will alter the measure to spell out that the only activity that would be a crime is where an individual is sending something specifically to one individual or group, rather than simply posting something on a web site. But he rejected Horowitz' suggestion that direct e-mails also should be exempt because they're less intrusive than a phone call.

"You can't pick up the phone today and call another person and threaten or harass them, constantly hang up the phone and otherwise disturb their peace," Vogt said. "You shouldn't be able to get away with that activity simply because now you're doing it via text message, e-mail or IM."