A number of media reports this week have focused attention on the introduction of House Bill 4419 in the Illinois House of Representatives by State Representative Terri Bryant. The measure would criminalize the uploading to the internet or social media video of a fight, if the “intent” of the distribution is to “promote” or “condone” the activity. The proposal has been questioned by many observers, including the ACLU of Illinois, because the vague nature of the language may be used to prosecute individuals engaged in protected First Amendment activity.

The following statement can be attributed to the ACLU of Illinois:

As always, we urge legislators to be very cautious when considering any legislation threatening to criminalize protected First Amendment activity. We also must be careful to ensure that the same free speech protections that have been the hallmark of American life for more than two centuries are applied to new communications’ platforms – including emerging social media outlets.

The First Amendment protects our right to express personal views on a range of ideas, including the use of violence. Whether one thinks that violence has a place in our society or not, we are free to express that opinion without fear of criminal prosecution. While government may restrict speech that is intended and is likely to cause immediate violence, this bill goes much further than this narrow restriction. The measure prohibits the mere expression of ideas about violent videos.

Moreover, the words “promote” and “condone” in House Bill 4419 are extremely vague, making it difficult or impossible for speakers to know exactly what they may or may not do when posting videos on the internet. This language is simply too loose, too open to broad interpretation. It might well result in someone being prosecuted for posting a video they found compelling or important for a public policy debate. This is the essence of freedom of expression and must be protected.