Tennessee legislators have expanded the state's harassment law, giving law enforcement officials more authority to investigate cyber bullying claims.
When the law goes into effect July 1, prosecutors armed with warrants or court orders can ask electronic communications service providers to turn over information that will help them identify who posted electronic images or other material aimed at specific people through the Internet, social media, text messages and other means.
The new provision updates the law to cover the current broad range of electronic communications and social networks. The expanded language defines harassment as anything that "communicates with another person or transmits or displays an image in a manner in which there is a reasonable expectation that the image will be viewed by the victim."
To violate the law, exchanges have to be proven to be malicious, frightening, intimidating or causing emotional distress to a victim.
"Ultimately if someone comes up to you and physically threatens you, it's harassment," said Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, the law's House sponsor. "This expands the law for people who do it electronically. In no way does this mean that everything that happens on the Internet is a criminal act."
The law applies to minors and adults, but adds a new punishment for juveniles: up to 30 hours of community service.
For adults, a violation would be considered a class A misdemeanor, punishable with up to almost a year in jail and up to a $2,500 fine.
Curtiss said he filed the bill at the request of his local sheriff, who had difficulty tracking down the source of anonymous Web postings on the social networking site Facebook that authorities suspected may have led a man to kill his estranged wife.
Vince Higgins, communications director for the Shelby County District Attorney's Office, said before the new language in the law, threatening someone meant to articulate a willingness to do harm or damage to a person or their property.
"People would have to show that someone's actions constituted a threat like someone calling multiple times at odd hours of the night," he said. "But, if you didn't tell them to stop, it was harder for us to prosecute, and that's where the law fell short."
Higgins said this law will assist people in knowing that they can report cyber harassment as a crime.
State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, who supported the measure, said the law has free speech issues.
"There are two issues. One is modernizing and updating the laws and making sure they apply to modern communication," he said. "The second problem is the part with images. The government can only limit free speech so much."
Kelsey said the law also limits political speech, making it a crime for political opponents to put up "mean" billboards about each other.
Thomas Tigue, chief deputy attorney for the legislature's Office of Legal Services, said the law is clearly focused on victims of harassment as opposed to general Internet content and has several thresholds and standards to ensure it does not violate constitutional free speech protections.
"The harassment statute is one of only about 20 criminal provisions in Tennessee law with 'intention' as a threshold - you have to intend the conduct and intend the specific result," Tigue said Friday. In this case, it's the "malicious intent to frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress" to a specific person.
"I don't see how that would ever apply to anything that is First Amendment protected," Tigue said. "Political speech is also protected, so the law would not apply to criticism of elected officials or candidates."
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