Mind your memes everyone, the state of Washington just might imprison you for “embarrassing” public officials – or anyone else – on social media. The state’s anti-cyberbully statute criminalizes electronic communications with intent to harass, torment or embarrass another person. It further adds “if the communication is made anonymously or repeatedly.”
Eugene Volokh and Internet lawyer Venkat Balasubramani filed a lawsuit last week to fight this injustice and infringement on the people’s right to free speech:
This deliberately extends beyond unprotected speech (such as true threats or libel). It deliberately extends beyond unwanted speech said to a particular person and forbids embarrassing speech said about that person. Repeatedly criticizing a politician on your blog, for instance, could send you to jail if a prosecutor and judge or jury concludes that you were intending to “harass,” “torment” or “embarrass.”
The lawsuit, Rynearson v. Ferguson is in response to the plaintiff’s concerns he may be punished under the terms of this statute for the material he posted on his blog. According to the lawsuit:
Plaintiff wishes to engage in constitutionally protected speech, including speech on matters of public concern, without fear of criminal prosecution under Section 9.61.260(1)(b), even though that expression might be considered harassing or embarrassing to the subjects about whom he writes.
According to Volokh, the statute is invalid under the First Amendment because the terms are too broad. He said because there are not any concrete definitions of the terms “harass,” “torment,” “Intimidate” and “embarrass,” courts tend to use their general meaning taken from the dictionary. For example, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines “embarrass” as “to cause to experience a state of self-conscious distress.”
So, folks, this means those witty little political memes you like to share on Facebook could land you in jail in Washington. Calling out public officials “could be subject to criminal prosecution and punishment” if they are seen as intended to “embarrass or make them “self-conscious” about something.”
Section 9.61.260(1)(b) criminalizes “even public commentary about people.” This statute violates the First Amendment because it makes it a criminal act on a person’s “pure” speech and not their conduct. Imagine if Hillary Clinton and President Donald Trump had resided in Washington State during the presidential elections. How many memes, tweets, speeches, announcements and emails circulated would have been considered criminal under this anti-cyberbullying law?
While we might have relished seeing Clinton behind bars, this infringement on our right to free speech is terrifying. This is another attempt of the progressive pansies to control what the populous says and does. Our freedoms are being challenged and stripped from us on a daily basis, while public officials suck their thumbs and cry like babies for being “embarrassed.” This statute makes it possible to punish people for expressing their thoughts about political candidates and those already in office. It takes away our right to provide our informed opinions or feelings on our personal or professional social media sites.
Volokh, in the lawsuit, explains why fighting this statue is so important:
Rynearson [plaintiff] engages in core political expression of a sort squarely within the heartland of what the First Amendment protects, and yet legitimately fears prosecution under the statute based upon the provocative and critical nature of what he writes and publishes online.
Volokh used another example of just how far-reaching the consequences can become. Let’s say a woman breaks up with her boyfriend/spouse for being unfaithful, he explained. Later that evening, the woman goes onto her personal Facebook page and posts about what happened. A prosecutor could come back and say that her post was intended to “harass or embarrass her ex-boyfriend by making him feel ashamed.”
In other words, we cannot even enjoy everyday speech and conversations without fear of reprisal. It is glaringly clear how this statute violates the First Amendment and our basic human rights. Washington law makers have taken it to the extreme to “protect” its residents from cyber bullying and also took the opportunity to assert more control and influence over the populous.
Our Constitutional right as Americans gives us the ability to say what we want; regardless if it is something someone else doesn’t want to hear. The Supreme Court has ruled, more than once, that “bad intentions do not strip speech of constitutional protection.” It has also ruled, a “speaker’s motivation” is generally “entirely irrelevant to the question of constitutional protection.”
Let us hope this lawsuit will not only be won but will also force Washington state law makers to revise it to protect our constitutional rights.