Hoffman: Online opinion is still free speech

Hoffman: Online opinion is still free speech

by
Wayne Hoffman
March 1, 2009
Wayne Hoffman
Author Image
March 1, 2009

Moron. Idiot. Henchman. Ideologue. Airhead. Wingnut. Windbag. Apparently, there's a rotating catalog of pet names that a dependable (yet unforgiving) band of my followers out in cyberspace like to call me.

I don't know their names, but they know me, and they make sure to publically deride me each and every time I open my mouth or pound out a right-of-center commentary on my keyboard.

Some, like brt929, dutifully record strenuous objections to my opinion each Sunday morning. Others save their vitriol for my inbox. I've read comments that are nothing more than foul-mouthed diatribes that do little to expand the pool of knowledge except to inform me that I'm consuming too much air and probably should radically cut back on my intake. Public figures aplenty suffer similarly.

Where's a legislator when you need one? Dashing to our rescue is a former newspaper publisher, a freshman legislator, a freedom-of-speech expert whose bill would make criminals out of all of my new ill-tempered pen pals.

Twin Falls Republican Rep. Stephen Hartgen, whom I have known for years and respect (and who attempted to hire me more than a decade ago), is way off base with his House Bill 82. His bill attempts to shoehorn Internet technologies into the state's aged telephone harassment statute.

Under the statute, repeated offensive phone calls are deemed harassment. With Hartgen's proposal, threatening and even some just-plain-mean comments delivered via e-mail, text message, social networking Web sites or blog posts would be, too. An e-mail to me threatening to do harm is the same as profane comments about me on a blog, under the legislation. And I need not ever see the offensive blog post or e-mail. The mere act of sending the e-mail or creating the blog entry is enough.

But contemptible should not mean illegal, and this legislation makes the two indistinguishable. Additionally, it lumps the profane tirade in the same category as an anger-inspired but otherwise clean rant.

Furthermore, the noms de plume Silence Dogood and Davila and Publicola were our Founding Fathers' way of expressing the same freedom of speech that those spirited left-leaners brt929, Sisyphus and BinkyBoy get to enjoy today. Hartgen's bill, perhaps innocently, attempts to regulate vile but opinionated speech conducted in cyberspace and not really intended to cause harm except to get under people's skin.

I had anticipated that the quizzical members of the House Judiciary Committee would quash the Hartgen bill outright. But the panel kept it alive for another review Thursday, apparently to consider an overhaul of the existing telephone harassment statute, and perhaps to also legislate away a repeat of the real-life Internet-based harassment that culminated in the suicide of a Missouri teenager in 2006.

Missouri's approach was far more artful than Hartgen's. That state's legislation, which was signed into law last June, takes the focus off the mechanism for harassment and focuses instead on the conduct. Under the Missouri template, a communication - the law does not specify whether it comes by phone or e-mail or carrier pigeon - is harassment when it creates "reasonable apprehension of offensive physical contact or harm." The law goes on to address the Missouri case by creating punishments for any communication that "recklessly frightens, intimidates, or causes emotional distress" to another. But it didn't ban legitimate free speech like House Bill 82 would.

I'm somewhat ambivalent about reading the remarks of anonymous commentators who are passionate and unified behind their disdain for me. I'm not excited about it, but I'm also never emotionally distressed by it either. It would be nice if my secretive friends would put more thought into their arguments, and be more constructive rather than lash out with much bitterness but little substance.

The other day, I asked a left-of-center blogger to sit with me and talk politics over tea. This blogger, from the Unequivocal Notion, is no fan of mine; he tends to be critical, but not malicious in his assessment of me.

He graciously accepted my invitation. I found him intelligent, well-spoken and kind, and we began to understand each other's positions a little better. We resolved to spend more time emphasizing the things on which we can agree, such as my foundation's transparency-in-government project.

This is the kind of interaction that no legislature can mandate. I left our meeting hopeful that I could have similar discussions with others like him.

In the meantime, this windbag will try to protect freedom of speech - even for those who want to take nasty swipes at me from time to time.

Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank. E-mail him at [email protected].

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