Utah law that could send online bullies to jail criticized

Photo by Lisa Quarfoth/Getty Images, St George News

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah lawmakers hope a new, unusual law cuts down on increasingly troubling forms of cyber harassment by giving authorities the ability to send online bullies to jail for a year.

Law enforcement, school officials and support groups back the effort, but some lawyers and a libertarian-leaning group have balked at what they call vague language in the law. They believe it could be unconstitutional and lead innocent people to be charged with crimes.

The regulation won unanimous approval in the Legislature and makes it a crime to post information online that can identify someone, including their name, photo and place of employment, to “intimidate, abuse, threaten, harass, frighten, or disrupt the electronic communications of another.”

Similar laws in New York and North Carolina have been ruled unconstitutional in recent years, said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who called Utah’s measure a violation of the First Amendment.

He helped launch a lawsuit last week challenging a similar law in Ohio.

“There are some situations where you might say this is punishable, especially if it’s a threat,” Volokh said. “But again, it deliberately applies to speech that doesn’t fit within any First Amendment exception.”

An advocacy group says the measure might have helped a gay Utah State University student who was afraid to come forward in 2013 to report being sexually assaulted after someone started posting his photo and phone number on Craigslist along with details on the forms of sex he was interested in.

The student hadn’t revealed publicly that he was gay and was terrified about the possibility that people would find out, said Turner Bitton of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Such cyberbullying has increased in recent years and can be especially damaging when used in relation to sexual violence, he said.

Those critical of the Utah law contend it could apply to innocuous, normal online behavior, such as somebody criticizing his neighbor’s choice of house paint on Facebook or complaining about a state lawmaker in an online comment section.

The law means the disgruntled house owner or lawmaker could initiate criminal proceedings by arguing that the information was posted to harass or frighten them, said David Reymann, a First Amendment lawyer in Utah.

“It’s not going to just apply to the typical stalker who is moving to an online platform to continue what we consider to be stalking,” Reymann said.

It’s Utah lawmakers’ second attempt at combatting this type of cyberbullying.

FILE – This Feb. 3, 2015, file photo, Eagle Mountain Republican Rep. David Lifferth appears on the house floor at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. Utah lawmakers say they hope a new, unique law cuts down on the expanding and increasingly troubling forms of cyber harassment by giving authorities the ability to send the online bullies to jail. Last year, Utah legislators considered a similar bill, but stripped out the personally identifiable information portion because some committee members were concerned with how broad some terms in that section were, said than Republican Rep. Lifferth, who sponsored the 2016 bill. Lifferth’s bill was never passed because lawmakers say they ran out of time. | AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File, St. George News

Last year, they considered a similar measure but stripped out a section on identifying information because of some concerns with its broad language, according to then-Rep. David Lifferth, a Republican who sponsored the 2016 bill. Lawmakers said they ran out of time to approve it.

“I just can’t imagine a situation where this would be inappropriately applied,” said Republican state Sen. Daniel Thatcher, adding that he sponsored the new law at the request of the Department of Public Safety.

Maj. Brian Redd said the department supports the general effort to reduce cybercrime, but it was Lifferth who pushed to address the issue.

Connor Boyack, president of the libertarian-leaning nonprofit group Libertas Institute, said he plans to push for a measure next legislative session that narrows the scope of the law’s language.

He said he wants to replace words such as “harass” with “significant harassment,” so “prosecutors have a higher bar to meet in order to prove their case.”

Written by HALLIE GOLDEN, Associated Press

Email: news@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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1 Comment

  • comments May 26, 2017 at 1:25 pm

    Gave up social media long time ago. If anyone wants to get ahold of me they got my #. Feel a bit bad for the youths of today that are hooked on social media garbage. I’ve seen the way some of them use it and it really is disgusting. Seems to bring out the worst in people. World was better off before it and maybe someday it’ll fade out–it’s all an artificial sense of connectedness, but the youths use it to spread gossip and bullying, among other negativities. Like I said, brings out the worst.

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