Tennessee Legislature Listens to Public Criticism, Dramatically Limits Last Year’s Ban on Posting Images That Cause “Emotional Distress” “Without Legitimate Purpose”

A pleasant story of the law being fixed as a result of public criticism — much of it online — just as in Arizona last month:

Last year, the Tennessee Legislature enacted a statute that essentially banned the online posting of images that cause “emotional distress” “without legitimate purpose.” As I blogged on June 6, the law made it a crime to

(4) Communicate[] 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 by [by telephone, in writing or by electronic communication] without legitimate purpose:

(A) (i) With the malicious intent to frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress; or

(ii) In a manner the defendant knows, or reasonably should know, would frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress to a similarly situated person of reasonable sensibilities; and

(B) As the result of the communication, the person is frightened, intimidated or emotionally distressed.

The law therefore applied not just to one-to-one communication, but to people’s posting images on their own Facebook pages, on their Web sites, and in other places if (1) they were acting “without legitimate purpose,” (2) they caused emotional distress, and (3) they intended to cause emotional distress or knew or reasonably should have known that their action would cause emotional distress to a similarly situated person of reasonable sensibilities. So,

  1. If you had posted a picture of someone in an embarrassing situation — not at all limited to, say, sexually themed pictures or illegally taken pictures — you’d likely have been a criminal unless the prosecutor, judge, or jury concludes that you had a “legitimate purpose.”
  2. Likewise, if you had posted an image intended to distress some religious, political, ethnic, racial, etc. group, you too could have been sent to jail if a government decisionmaker thought thinks your purpose wasn’t “legitimate.” Nothing in the law required that the picture be of the “victim,” only that it be distressing to the “victim.”
  3. The same would have been true even if you hadn’t intend to distress those people, but reasonably should have known that the material — say, pictures of Mohammed, or blasphemous jokes about Jesus Christ, or harsh cartoon insults of some political group — would have “cause[d] emotional distress to a similarly situated person of reasonable sensibilities.”
  4. And of course the same would have applied if a newspaper or TV station had posted embarrassing pictures or blasphemous images on its site.

After — I can’t say whether because of — the June 6 post, there was a good deal of criticism of the new law, and it looks like the Tennessee Legislature listened. Last week, it passed (unanimously in the Senate, 76-14 in the House) and sent to the Governor a bill that basically limited the statute to threats; if the Governor signs the bill, then the law would be limited to making it a crime to

(4) Communicate[] with another person or transmits or displays an image without legitimate purpose with the intent that that the image is viewed by the victim … [when the communicator]:

(A) Maliciously intends the communication to be a threat of harm to the victim; and

(B) A reasonable person would perceive the communication to be a threat of harm.

This seems to be limited to speech that fits within the “true threats” exception to First Amendment protection (at least if “harm” is reasonably interpreted as a threat of illegal physical harm or vandalism, rather than a threat of, say, boycott or social ostracism, which are generally constitutionally protected).

So it looks like public criticism of speech restrictions, even ones that seem to target supposed “bullying” or “harassment,” has worked in this instance; I’m very glad to see that. For more on the change in the law, see this TN Report article posted yesterday.

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