There’s an oft-quoted line among free speech advocates, often in response to religious types insisting they deserve special treatment:
Nobody has the right not to be offended.
It’s a succinct way of expressing a basic freedom, and reminding people that you’re not entitled to forcibly inhibit others from saying what they want in a public space, just because it upsets you. It’s a handy little truism.
Only, in Tennessee, it’s no longer true.
Here’s the wording of the relevant Tennessee law, as it was amended last month:
(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.
This is a frighteningly low threshold that has to be met before people are guilty of a criminal act. It’s not just addressing death threats or harassing midnight phone calls any more. If it’s something you “reasonably should know” will cause “emotional distress” to someone who might see it, you’re expected to keep your damn mouth shut. If that someone then claims to have been “emotionally distressed” – something there’s really no way to measure except by taking their word for it – then you’ve broken the law.
I’ve heard directly from people who find a drawing of a featureless stick-man labelled “Mohammed” to be unconscionably offensive. I have no doubt that a competent lawyer could make the case that every one of the above points applied to some of the things I’ve posted on my blog, if any religious people ever made the complaint and claimed emotional distress.
Just not visiting my site would be the obvious solution. And in practice, even with this law in place, that’s what most people will do, and what most of the lawmakers would support, in such truly trivial cases. But the law is still frighteningly broad in scope, and leaves ample room for just this sort of abuse.
I’m also unsettled by the phrase “without legitimate purpose” which qualifies the whole thing. The implication that expressing yourself needs to be justified before it can be permitted is chilling. My legitimate purpose is “I will say what I fucking like”.
I’m not aware of any recent events in Tennessee or elsewhere which would suddenly necessitate such a change to the legislation. If you know of any cases of legitimate harassment, against which no action could have been taken under the previous law and which justify the changes, do send me a link.