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January 11, 2006

New U. S. Code About Harassment Via Telecommunications Device

Last Thursday, C-Net reported that Bush signed into law "a prohibition on posting annoying Web messages or sending annoying e-mail messages without disclosing your true identity." Many bloggers are talking about the extension in the U. S. code that prohibits harassment via communications devices such as the telephone and internet. Here is a portion of the code that they are talking about.

TITLE 47 > CHAPTER 5 > SUBCHAPTER II > Part I > § 223

§ 223. Obscene or harassing telephone calls in the District of Columbia or in interstate or foreign communications

Release date: 2005-03-17

(a) Prohibited acts generally


(1) in interstate or foreign communications—

(A) by means of a telecommunications device knowingly—

(i) makes, creates, or solicits, and

(ii) initiates the transmission of,

any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication which is obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent, with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass another person;

(B) by means of a telecommunications device knowingly—

(i) makes, creates, or solicits, and

(ii) initiates the transmission of,

any comment, request, suggestion, proposal, image, or other communication which is obscene or indecent, knowing that the recipient of the communication is under 18 years of age, regardless of whether the maker of such communication placed the call or initiated the communication;

(C) makes a telephone call or utilizes a telecommunications device, whether or not conversation or communication ensues, without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person at the called number or who receives the communications;

(D) makes or causes the telephone of another repeatedly or continuously to ring, with intent to harass any person at the called number; or

(E) makes repeated telephone calls or repeatedly initiates communication with a telecommunications device, during which conversation or communication ensues, solely to harass any person at the called number or who receives the communication; or

(2) knowingly permits any telecommunications facility under his control to be used for any activity prohibited by paragraph (1) with the intent that it be used for such activity,

shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.

Men's rights activists seem to be a bit miffed that this code may mean they cannot harass and annoy feminists when they anonymously troll blogs and message boards. I don't think that's what the code is referring to. I and several feminists were harassed and threatened by a man from England a few years ago. This man had sent me a death threat via e-mail. He said he was going to "slit my fucking throat". He also annoyed me with his repeated messages that he thought were anonymous, but I was able to track down his real identity with a few Google searches. I never felt threatened by him because I live in Massachusetts and he lived in London. Plus I get annoying and sometimes harassing comments on my blog and in e-mail all the time. I have a high tolerance for tripe. However, other feminists who were at the receiving end of his messages did feel threatened. He had also posted anonymously to comments on my blog and on other feminist's blogs. Several feminists who felt threatened reported him to Scotland Yard. I was contacted by Scotland Yard to inform detectives of what this man had sent to me. It turned out that he was about 18 years old and lived with his mother. He had a history of mental problems. I know he was convicted of communications harassment, but I don't remember how he was sentenced. It's that kind of harassment and threatening behavior that the code is designed to deal with. Free speech allows trolls to do their troll thing, but bloggers are free to ban and delete their nonsense.

I do think it's telling that men's rights activists are talking about this code because they've all but admitted that they go to feminist message boards and blogs to harass and annoy and even threaten. When they get banned or see their comments removed, they whine about "freedom of speech", censorship, and feminists supposedly not wanting to hear opposing points of view. It's clear even before this code was being talked about that they come to feminist forums solely to disrupt. They've admitted that's what they do when they discuss the code.

Posted on January 11, 2006 at 08:28 AM | Permalink


I think you've missed something here.

You already have protection against harassment, as your own story confirms. That's something which has a solid legal foundation: courts and prosecutors know what it means. We may disagree with the boundary they set.

My understanding is that the word "annoy" has been added, and it isn't clear what it means in this context. It is quite limited, only applying to anonymous communication, but I don't know what "anonymous" means in US law. I'm pretty sure that you would be safe in the UK, consistently using the label you do, but what laws apply where you live?

I think a lot of people are worried because they don't know what this revised clause means. And that's not limited to men who hate feminists. The reports I've seen of the harrassment of political speech in the USA may be biased, but seen in that context this law looks too easy to abuse.

Posted by: Dave Bell at Jan 12, 2006 3:49:37 AM