On March 5, the state House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation to update Washington’s cyber harassment law less than two weeks after a federal district court judge found the state’s existing law unconstitutional.
House Bill 2129, sponsored by 31st District State Rep. Drew Stokesbary, would no longer criminalize those constitutionally-protected categories of speech, but would give more tools to law enforcement to prosecute cyber harassment. For example, under the proposed legislation, cyber harassment could be charged as a felony if the defendant had previously been convicted of harassing the victim, their family, or their household in the past.
“Washington state led the nation in anti-cyberstalking legislation 15 years ago. But with a federal judge’s recent ruling it was critical we get an enforceable law in place quickly,” said Stokesbary, R-Auburn. “I am thankful to my colleagues on both sides of the aisle for expediting this bill through the legislative process in order to address the judge’s decision and put a new cyber harassment bill in place.”
In his ruling, Judge Ronald B. Leighton said the state’s cyberstalking law was an unconstitutional restriction of free speech rights. His injunction order noted the Supreme Court has only permitted government regulation of narrow categories of speech, such as obscenity, defamation, incitement and threats. He concluded that Washington’s existing cyberstalking law violated the First Amendment because it criminalized speech outside of these categories, such as statements that were merely “embarrassing” to their subject or that were made anonymously or repetitively.
The judge issued an injunction on Friday, Feb. 22. Stokesbary managed to draft a bill and get it before the House Appropriations Committee, where it passed unanimously, before the Thursday, Feb. 28 fiscal committee cutoff deadline.
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.