Tennessee is a dangerous place to think; the First Amendment ESPECIALLY Protects all Expressions of “Offensive” and “Injurious” thought—because these are the most dangerous to the “Comfort” of those who wield power


Tenn. law bans posting images that "cause emotional distress"
By  | Published 4 days ago
Tenn. law bans posting images that "cause emotional distress"

A new Tennessee law makes it a crime to “transmit or display an image” online that is likely to “frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress” to someone who sees it. Violations can get you almost a year in jail time or up to $2500 in fines.

The Tennessee legislature has been busy updating its laws for the Internet age, and not always for the better. Last week we reported on a bill that updated Tennessee’s theft-of-service laws to include “subscription entertainment services” like Netflix.

The ban on distressing images, which was signed by Gov. Bill Haslam last week, is also an update to existing law. Tennessee law already made it a crime to make phone calls, send emails, or otherwise communicate directly with someone in a manner the sender “reasonably should know” would “cause emotional distress” to the recipient. If the communciation lacked a “legitimate purpose,” the sender faced jail time.

The new legislation adds images to the list of communications that can trigger criminal liability. But for image postings, the “emotionally distressed” individual need not be the intended recipient. Anyone who sees the image is a potential victim. If a court decides you “should have known” that an image you posted would be upsetting to someone who sees it, you could face months in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.

If you think that sounds unconstitutional, you’re not alone. In a blog post, constitutional scholar Eugene Volokh points out just how broad the legislation is. The law doesn’t require that the picture be of the “victim,” nor would the government need to prove that you intended the image to be distressing. Volokh points out that a wide variety of images, “pictures of Mohammed, or blasphemous jokes about Jesus Christ, or harsh cartoon insults of some political group,” could “cause emotional distress to a similarly situated person of reasonable sensibilities,” triggering liability. He calls the bill “pretty clearly unconstitutional.”

Another provision of the legislation governs law enforcement access to the contents of communications on social networking sites. The government can get access to “images or communications” posted to a social networking site by offering “specific and articulable facts,” suggesting that the information sought is “relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.”

This section, too, faces constitutional problems. Julian Sanchez, a privacy scholar at the Cato Institute, tells Ars that “this is a lower standard than the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act requires” for unread communications. More importantly, because Tennessee is in the Sixth Circuit, it is bound by that court’sWarshak decision, which held that the Fourth Amendment requires the government to obtain a full search warrant in order to access e-mail communications. “That case dealt with e-mail,” Sanchez said, “but there’s no good reason to think a private message on a social network site is any different.”

Rep. Charles Curtiss, the lead sponsor of the legislation, did not respond to our request for comment.

Further reading

Post A Picture That ‘Causes Emotional Distress’ And You Could Face Jailtime In Tennessee

from the outlawing-jerks? dept

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a troubling trend in various state laws which attempt to come up with ways to outlaw being a jerk online. Many of these are based on politicians and/or the public taking an emotional reaction to something bad happening after some does something online that angered someone else. Of course, while it would be nice if jerks would go away or jerky behavior would cease, that’s just not realistic. The real issue is: how can it be constitutional to outlaw being a jerk? In many cases it raises serious First Amendment issues, among other things. The latest to jump into this game is the state of Tennessee, which apparently decided that just throwing people in jail for sharing music subscription passwordswasn’t enough: now they want to put people in jail for “causing emotional distress” to others.

The specific law outlaws posting a photo online that causes “emotional distress” to someone and has no “legitimate purpose.” While the law does state that there needs to be “malicious intent,” it also includes a massive loophole, in that it says that you can still be liable if the person “reasonably should know” that the actions would “frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress.” Eugene Volokh notes all sorts of problems with this:

  • If you’re posting a picture of someone in an embarrassing situation — not at all limited to, say, sexually themed pictures or illegally taken pictures — you’re likely a criminal unless the prosecutor, judge, or jury concludes that you had a “legitimate purpose.”
  • Likewise, if you post an image intended to distress some religious, political, ethnic, racial, etc. group, you too can be sent to jail if governments decisionmaker thinks your purpose wasn’t “legitimate.” Nothing in the law requires that the picture be of the “victim,” only that it be distressing to the “victim.”
  • The same is true even if you didn’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 “cause emotional distress to a similarly situated person of reasonable sensibilities.”
  • And of course the same would apply if a newspaper or TV station posts embarrassing pictures or blasphemous images on its site.

Honestly, any time you have a law where the liability is based on how some other person feels, you’ve got a pretty serious problem. You can criminalize actions, but making someone a criminal because someone else feels “emotional distress” seems like a huge stretch.
http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110606/22513614573/post-picture-that-causes-emotional-distress-you-could-face-jailtime-tennessee.shtml

Friday, a new Tennessee law was changed to provide (new material italicized):

(a) A person commits an offense who intentionally:

(4) Communicates 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.

So the law now applies 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 are acting “without legitimate purpose,” (2) they cause emotional distress, and (3) they intend to cause emotional distress or know or reasonably should know that their action will cause emotional distress to a similarly situated person of reasonable sensibilities. So,

  1. If you’re posting a picture of someone in an embarrassing situation — not at all limited to, say, sexually themed pictures or illegally taken pictures — you’re likely a criminal unless the prosecutor, judge, or jury concludes that you had a “legitimate purpose.”
  2. Likewise, if you post an image intended to distress some religious, political, ethnic, racial, etc. group, you too can be sent to jail if governments decisionmaker thinks your purpose wasn’t “legitimate.” Nothing in the law requires that the picture be of the “victim,” only that it be distressing to the “victim.”
  3. The same is true even if you didn’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 “cause emotional distress to a similarly situated person of reasonable sensibilities.”
  4. And of course the same would apply if a newspaper or TV station posts embarrassing pictures or blasphemous images on its site.

Pretty clearly unconstitutional, it seems to me.

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