Vriezen: Free Speech? Not in Tennessee


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A Tenn. law that will go into effect July 1 could chill online speech, argues columnist Vriezen.

Claire Vriezen

Many state legislatures have attempted to pass bills with vague and unclear wording in the past, but the diction of Tennessee’s new law could get a lot of Internet users in trouble. 

Beginning July 1, a law will be enacted that seems to allow the possibility of a Facebook user, Tweeter, blogger or news group being prosecuted for “emotional distress” suffered by a victim. The bill is an attempt to crack down on online harassment and revamp the state’s harassment laws, but the ambiguous wording has some worried. 

In particular, images that are transmitted online that have the propensity to offend could now be deemed illegal. The wording of the law is such that the “victim” of a harassing image could construed as anyone, not necessarily the person or party to whom it is sent.  Additionally, the image need only “frighten, intimidate, or cause emotional distress to … a person of reasonable sensibilities.” 

Certain images are allowed, though: those that have been deemed to have a “legitimate purpose.” But of course,  the phrase “legitimate purpose” is open to interpretation. 

While Internet harassment itself isn’t something to be pushed aside, this particular law is somewhat ridiculous in its attempts to censor “offensive” or harassing images. In this day and age, it seems that nearly any topic will offend someone. 

For many people discussing controversial topics, it’s nearly impossible to address them without stepping on somebody’s toes, whether it’s because the person is easily offended, or the content is offensive to some. It is an outcome of people having diametrically opposed viewpoints.

While some internet users resort to mockery as a form of commentary (albeit a crude one), many artists, cartoonists, or media groups create images satirizing hot button issues such as religion, reproductive rights, LGBT rights, immigration or race. All someone needs to do is claim that another person’s Facebook post is causing him or her emotional distress and the offender could receive jail time or up to $2500 in fines

While it seems a bit far-fetched to imagine a situation in which someone is prosecuted for a controversial Facebook picture, it is the potential ramifications of this bill that underscore the need for upholding our highly valued First Amendment. 

When we allow ideas and criticisms to be silenced out of fear of offending someone, it builds a shield that people can hide behind. Such shields can deprive people of exposure to dissenting views and challenging opinions.

I hope someone will deem this new law unconstitutional before any damage is done to the rights of Tennesseeans. In the meantime, will shyness of violating this new law cause some to self-censor, for fear of being accused of harassment? Time will tell. 

An attempt to protect victims of legitimate harassment and intimidation on the Internet could now result in restricting the freedom of expression for those in Tennessee, or simply create a state of fear for many. In a nation that values the right of expression, controlling and threatening punishment for those that create “emotionally distressing” images is hardly a step forward.