Nebraska Legislative Bill 948


Summary

Nebraska Legislative Bill 948 would make it a crime to use an electronic communication device to contact another person using indecent, obscene, lewd or profane language or to suggest a lewd or lascivious act with the intent to annoy, offend, harass or terrify.

The legislation offers no definitions for annoy, offend, harass or terrify, either in the statute or by reference. Lewd and profane are also not defined.

Status

The bill died in the Committee on Judiciary.

Analysis

Government may criminalize speech that rises to the level of harassment or intimidation, but this legislation reaches a much greater range of speech. Under this bill, the communication does not need to be one-on-one, repetitive or unwanted. There is no requirement that the recipient or the subject of the speech actually feel offended, annoyed or afraid. It is unclear if the communication must be intended to offend or annoy a specific person, or if a general intent to do so is sufficient. The bill also applies to a wide range of communication online, from chatrooms and social networking websites to listservs and blogs.

There are numerous recent examples of speech that was intended to be provocative and would be criminal under this bill. When a Danish newspaper posted pictures of Muhammad, they were intended to be offensive to Muslims to make a point about religion. Such an act would be criminal if a Muslim in Nebraska saw the photos online and considered them profane. Some residents may consider Rush Limbaugh’s recent comments about a Georgetown law student lewd. Similarly, much general content available in the media uses racy or profane language and is intended to offend, annoy or even terrify. Bill Maher’s stand-up routines and Jon Stewart’s nightly program; Ann Coulter’s books discussing liberals and Christopher Hitchens’ writing expressing his distaste for religion; Stephen King’s novels; or the Halloween films all could be subject to this legislation. Even common banter online about sports between rival fans frequently is meant to offend or annoy and is often done using profane language.

In certain narrow, well-defined instances, speech may rise to the level of coercion, threats, intimidation or persistent harassment and may amount to a crime. But this bill does not define many of its terms adequately to distinguish between protected speech and the traditional narrow crime of harassment. The vagueness in the legislation will have a significant chilling effect on protected speech. Speakers have little guidance to determine what speech is protected and what is subject to prosecution, and must either risk a criminal prosecution or self-censor their speech.

History

  • On January 11, 2012, the bill was introduced [2] and referred to the Committee on Judiciary.
  • On March 15, 2012, Media Coalition submitted a memo in opposition [1], explaining the constitutional issues with the bill.
  • Consideration of the bill was indefinitely postponed on April 18, 2012.

Last updated: Aug 21, 2015