Thursday, June 9, 2011

Tennessee's Hurt Feelings Law: Where's the First Amendment?

Here's a scenario: Suppose I go to a party in Tennessee, and because I'm an ass, I'm taking pictures of drunken partygoers. While I'm there, I happen to snap a photo of Girl A making out with Boy B. I upload the image to Facebook, along with the rest of my party photos, and the next thing I know there's a police officer knocking at my door. Yes, I've just broken the newest Tennessee law: "Protection Against Embarrassment And Hurt Feelings".

Someone who "transmits or displays an image in a manner in which there is a reasonable expectation that the image will be viewed by the victim without legitimate purpose... with the malicious intent to frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress; or in a manner the defendant knows, or reasonably should know (italics mine) would frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress to a similarly situated person of reasonable sensibilities; and as a result of the communication, the person is frightened, intimidated or emotionally distressed" is a criminal.

Normally I'd put an image here, but apparently THAT COULD HURT SOMEBODY'S FEELINGS

Presumably, this is intended to combat Internet harassment. The law previously contained the language "communicates with another person", but the law has now been broadened to also include images. So if either Girl A or Boy B was in any way embarrassed by my taking pictures, I could be convicted under this law. It's set up to fight stalkers, but it also is a massive infringement upon my First Amendment right to say and do what I please. Under this law, I don't have to be trying to hurt anyone; all that has to happen is for the 'victim' to view the image. Malicious intent isn't required. It could be on this blog, on my Facebook page, in an email that I sent. It could be an off-color joke that I sent, and whoa, suddenly it caused offense.

If I send someone a link to a shock site, or invite them to view "Two Girls, One Cup"*, and they're offended, I could go to jail for a year. Hell, if I recommend 4Chan to anyone, I'm going away for life! 

If I contradict you in an argument, and that causes you emotional distress, under the "communication" part of the law, that's punishable by jail as well. I'm not usually one to throw insults around, but for the Tennessee legislature, I cannot believe how stupid this is. If you want to arrest me for that, go right ahead.

Oh, yeah: I'm in Wisconsin. How would that work, exactly? The Internet has no physical location, so presumably the crime is committed where the victim is. Do you have to be physically in Tennessee to break this law?

Here's another scenario that should make your hair stand on end: A sex scandal breaks, and CNN shows viewers embarrassing pictures of a lawmaker fooling around with his colleague's wife. Under this law, the lawmaker can go after CNN for causing him emotional distress! There's no protection for journalists in the .pdf file, either; the law protects content providers ("the offense... shall not apply to an entity providing an electronic communications service to the public acting in the normal course of providing that service") but not necessarily one-way communication, like journalists -> the public.

Laws that protect us from physical harm are necessary, but laws that seek to protect our delicate feelings are just stupid. I hope this statute goes to court soon, and I hope it's overturned on the idiocy test as soon as it gets there.

*According to the full text, "'Image' includes, but is not limited to, a visual depiction, video clip or photograph of another person".

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