Under threat: Lawmakers work to end digital harassment
With two death threats reported at the Capitol each day, Colorado lawmakers weigh digital harassment legislation.
Lawmakers and their families face frequent threats; death and rape top the list. Former state lawmaker Amy Stephens, R-Monument, knows this well. In 2011, when Stephens ran an insurance exchange bill, she found herself in the crosshairs of opponents of the Affordable Care Act.
“I had death threats and was being followed when I ran the exchange bill,” Stephens told an audience at a recent Colorado Independent women-in-politics forum. “Did you know that we had to have people in front of my office every day at the Capitol? Did you know that people called my office to say, ‘We’re going to kill your boss,’ to my aides? Did you know that it was awful?”
Stephens is not alone in her experience of threats.
“Death threats? I think we’re up to one or two a day … we’re reporting about one a week to State Patrol,” said Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton.
When contentious issues hit Salazar’s desk, threats pour in. “There are those who like to bring family into it, which is an absolute no-no,” said Salazar. “My family doesn’t take the votes. I do. People will mention my girls or mention my wife. I get very concerned about my family. For myself, it is what it is. I kind of accepted that as a legislator.
“I’m sure there’s a number of other Republicans and Democrats who get all kinds of nasty threats as they go about their legislative careers,” Salazar continued, “but it saddens me that people really think that physically threatening someone is supposed to influence legislation.”
To combat pervasive electronic harassment, Salazar co-sponsored HB-1072, an update to the harassment code. He supports the bill, both for its primary intention to curb cyberbullying among kids and because it would cover repeat harassment and threats made “indirectly” through social media.
Salazar distinguishes trolls from terrorists and appreciates that the bill acknowledges the difference.
“Here are the trolls,” he said, pointing to a printout of an online article. “This is Colorado Peak Politics. They call me ‘Jackass Joe.’ Apparently that’s the name they wanted to run with.”
Does he love the nickname? No. Does he think it should be reported to State Patrol or that HB 1072 will make it illegal? Also no.
“Yes, the First Amendment talks about civil discord,” said Salazar, “but the death threats? The physical threats? No. That’s the line.”
That line and which side of it the cyber-harassment bill falls on are less clear for Rep. Lori Saine, R-Firestone.
In 2013, Saine ate fried chicken in a legislative task force about poverty in response to a Republican colleague who had said racially insensitive things about foods black people eat.
Commenters criticized Saine for silently protesting in defense of the racially-charged comments.
“I was receiving tweets, phone calls, Facebook messages and they’d be in the nature of, ‘I hope you die,’ and ‘I hope you die this way,” remembers Saine. “It was a semantic workaround. They didn’t actually threaten to kill me, so that’s the difference.”
Saine voted against the electronic harassment bill because she thinks it’s overly broad and would limit free speech.
“If people want to call me names, I’ll defend their right to do so as long as it doesn’t cross that line to: ‘I’m coming over to your house right now, and I’m going to do this,’” said Saine. “If every politician was able to use this bill to say, ‘You’re harassing me,’ that’s really going to chill free speech.”
The Senate is scheduled to debate the bill on the floor today.
Photo by Jonas Seaman
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