In this week’s series of posts about pranksterism, we have an example of a recently amended law that, even if unintentional, raises the legal risks of engaging in pranksterism in which you might impersonate someone else.
The Texas legislature has expanded the scope of their state law against online harassment (also renaming it to “online impersonation”). The law was originally passed amongst the uproar over cyber-bullying and included a section that made it a crime to create a website or a profile on a social networking site, in which you use the name or persona of another person. There are a lot of problems with the way this law is written. For example, it isn’t clear whether using the persona of a non-existent person is covered, as was the case in the famous MySpace Mom Suicide case. If it does cover a non-existent persona, then is every online alias a potential violation?
Despite these problems, Gov. Rick Perry, on Friday signed an amendment to the law that expands the scope of the law to include any website, not just social networking sites. The change was in reaction to several cases in which an ex-husband or boyfriend have posted pictures of an ex-wife or girlfriend on Craigslist offering or soliciting sexual services, as though she was the one posting the advertisement. Undoubtedly a cleaver but sleazy way to get back at someone. Under the current law, prosecutors were unable to charge the ex-husbands or boyfriends because Craigslist is not a “social networking site.”
Although I wouldn’t mind seeing these men charged, I think the flaws with this law are being made worse by expanding its scope and I do not see how the changes to the law will not easily be circumvented by the targeted individuals. For example, if one of the ex-husbands above used an alias rather the his ex-wife’s real name the embarrassment and possible legal problems for his ex-wife would still be present, yet he would not have used her “name or persona” and, therefore, still not be charged under the law. The only option left, at that point, would be to interpret the law to apply equally to a non-existent persona. As a result, everyone that uses an alias and engages in activity that could be seen as harassment would be breaking the law. This is the epitome of a bad law (i.e., not very useful against those it was intended to be used against and unnecessarily applying to a large unintended group of people).
Other states have enacted similar laws and many will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on satire, parody, and pranksterism generally.