Utah anti-cyberbullying law faces criticism

The law would allow online bullies to be sent to jail for a year, but vague language in the law has led many to raise concerns about the implications of the legislation.

Rick Bowmer/AP
Eagle Mountain Republican then-Rep. David Lifferth appears on the house floor at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City in February 2015. 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.

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 University of California, Los Angeles, 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,” Mr. 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,” Mr. Reymann said.

This is not the first time Utah lawmakers have attempted to combat this type of cyberbullying.

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 Representative 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.”

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