Tennesseans Work To Repeal New Anti-Free Speech Law

Recently, a new group, calling itself “Tennesseans for Free Speech,” was started by grassroots activists to fight a new TN law that makes it a crime to post images that “frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress.”  The new law, which amends Tennessee’s harassment code, TCA 39-17-308, was passed by 92 votes in the TN House and 29 votes in the TN Senate.

Starting July 1, 2011, any Tennessee minor that posts an image or video that frightens, intimidates or causes emotional distress runs the risk of being charged with harassment and serving thirty (30) hours of community service, without compensation, for charitable or governmental agencies; for adults, they could face up to almost a year in jail and up to a $2,500 fine.

Said Attoney Aaron Kelly, a lawyer specializing in business and Internet law:

The law seems to be unconstitutional on its face. After all, it would allow charges to be brought against individuals for communicating contentious ideas in any other manner than in-person communication, effectively banning all forms of controversial printed or broadcast material … The fact that a restaurant owner can be charged and required to pay expensive legal fees to prove why that picture of a steak dinner they posted on their website had a legitimate purpose, notwithstanding that they realized a vegetarian would likely see it and be offended by it, will surely have a stifling effect on freedom of speech.

“While this law would be ridiculous to enforce, this new legislation poses a dangerous harassment standard which could be adopted by universities in Tennessee to censor so called ‘hate speech,’ said Kenny Tan, a student at Vanderbilt University.

“Dozens of articles about this have been written about this absurd law across the world and it has turned TN into a laughingstock,” said Matt Collins, a Tennesee resident.

UCLA School of Law professor Eugene Volokh describes several behaviors that will soon be illegal: 

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 decision maker 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.

Tennesseans for Free Speech plan on proposing new legislation to amend the harassment law to follow legal precedent set by the Supreme Court in cases of harassment.

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