Tenn. Law Targets 'Distressing' Images on Web

Jun 23, 2011 1:00 PM PST

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee's governor has signed into law a measure that criminalizes a wide swath of expression protected by the 1st Amendment.

Starting July 1, those who publish online images that could "frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress" to a victim or "a similarly situated person of reasonable sensibilities" could be sentenced to jail for one year.

Further, the criminal penalties can apply even in the "victim" doesn't ever actually see it, but someone else finds it distressing.

The legislation, House Bill No. 300, updates a law that makes it illegal to send communications where the sender reasonably knows would frighten, intimidate, or cause distress to the recipient.

The measure, as revised, now makes it a crime to publish an image on any website or service if someone else finds it emotionally disturbing.

Legal scholars, particularly those at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are appalled by the law because, simply put, it's impossible for a publisher to know whether an image might offend another.

The EFF, in a statement, also said the ban gives law enforcement a tool to selectively punish speech it doesn't like.

"The new law also says that social networking services must disclose communications and images to the government if it shows a court specific and articulable facts that there are 'reasonable grounds to believe that the contents of an electronic communication, or the records or other information sought, are relevant and material in an ongoing criminal investigation,' " said Marcia Hofmann, an EFF staff attorney.

Hoffman went on to say that this requirement contradicts the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which requires law enforcement — including state and local law enforcement in Tennessee — to get a warrant before seizing stored communications that are less than six months old.

"Even worse, Tennessee is in the Sixth Circuit, which held just a few months ago in United States vs. Warshak that the government must have a probable cause warrant to seize and search messages stored by communications service providers. Which means that the new law violates the 4th Amendment, too.

"In short, Tennessee's ban on posting distressing images is unconstitutional in more ways than one, and we hope to see the courts strike it down at the first opportunity."

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