Az. bill seeks to outlaw online impersonation
Published: Friday, February 1, 2013
Updated: Friday, February 1, 2013 00:02
Parody accounts such as @ThePresObama and @PeytonsHead may be considered illegal under a new bill in Arizona which criminalizes online impersonation.
Arizona State Rep. Michelle Ugenti, a Republican, proposed House Bill 2004 earlier this year. The bill would make online impersonation a felony in the most extreme cases. Violators of the bill could face up to one and a half years in prison if found guilty.
According to the bill, “A person commits online impersonation if the person, without obtaining the other person’s consent and with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten any person, uses the name or persona of another person.”
Mary Helen Millham, a third year graduate student in communication, said she understood the need for protecting people from online defamation and cyber bullying but worried about the implications of such a vague bill.
“Parody and satire have been protected under free speech as far back as Mark Twain,” said Millham.
In addition, Millham worries that the bill isn’t specific enough.
“If your ISP address is outside of Arizona, how does the law affect you?” Millham said. “It needs more clarity.”
David Yalof, a political science professor, said he doesn’t think the bill would affect parody accounts because it would only be used to prosecute those, “with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten.”
“Courts generally do not allow the First Amendment to protect those who engage in threatening or harmful behavior,” Yalof said.
However, Yalof said the bill shouldn’t interfere with parody accounts. “Impersonating strictly for fun or for parody proposes would not come within this law, at least in theory,” Yalof said.
According to Yalof, this bill is the latest in a series of online laws across the nation. Texas, Washington and New York already have similar laws on the books.
David Atkin, a communication professor, said online laws such as House Bill 2004 have a long way to go.
“Online law is running about a generation behind technology,” Atkin said. “Congressmen aren’t very tech savvy and they’re the ones making the laws.”
According to Millham, there is no such thing as a perfect online bill. “We need to stumble first to find what the best route is.”
Millham believes educating the public about responsible online behavior is just as important as a system of laws. “People need to be aware of what they put out there,” Millham said. “It’s easy to click through the end user agreements without actually reading them.”
Both Yalof and Millham agree that the constitutionality of House Bill 2004 depends upon whether or not prosecutors use it to go after parody accounts or social commentary.
“We’ll have to see how these laws are enforced,” Yalof said.