Utah law that could send online bullies to jail criticized

Utah lawmakers hope a new, unusual law cuts down on increasingly troubling forms of cyber harassment by giving authorities the ability to send online bullies to jail for a year.

Law enforcement, school officials and support groups back the effort, but some lawyers and a libertarian-leaning group have balked at what they call vague language in the law. They believe it could be unconstitutional and lead innocent people to be charged with crimes.

The regulation won unanimous approval in the Legislature and makes it a crime to post information online that can identify someone, including their name, photo and place of employment, to “intimidate, abuse, threaten, harass, frighten, or disrupt the electronic communications of another.”

Similar laws in New York and North Carolina have been ruled unconstitutional in recent years, said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who called Utah’s measure a violation of the First Amendment.

He helped launch a lawsuit last week challenging a similar law in Ohio.

“There are some situations where you might say this is punishable, especially if it’s a threat,” Volokh said. “But again, it deliberately applies to speech that doesn’t fit within any First Amendment exception.”

An advocacy group says the measure might have helped a gay Utah State University student who was afraid to come forward in 2013 to report being sexually assaulted after someone started posting his photo and phone number on Craigslist along with details on the forms of sex he was interested in.

The student hadn’t revealed publicly that he was gay and was terrified about the possibility that people would find out, said Turner Bitton of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Such cyberbullying has increased in recent years and can be especially damaging when used in relation to sexual violence, he said.

Those critical of the Utah law contend it could apply to innocuous, normal online behavior, such as somebody criticizing his neighbor’s choice of house…

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