The state of Tennessee amended Tennessee Code Title 39, Chapter 17, Part 3 of its harassment law, which was previously focused on malicious person-to-person communication, to apply to anyone transmitting potentially offensive images on the web.
The exact language of the law now reads:
(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.
No electronic communication is safe under the new law, as subsections have been added to included images shared via social networks where the victim could possibly see it. The bill now includes language that requires social networking sites to hand over the offending materials to the government if there’s a warrant or court order or if the person who posted the images provides consent.
The vague nature of Tennessee’s amended harassment law has many calling it unconstitutional, including UCLA School of Law professor Eugene Volokh.
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 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.”
The amendment was passed May 18, signed into law May 30 by Governor Bill Haslam and will go into effect July 1.