No More Muhammad Images in Tennessee? June 10, 2011

No More Muhammad Images in Tennessee?

A new law (PDF) in Tennessee could get a lot of atheists in trouble.

Tennessee legislators have passed an extraordinary law that makes it a crime to “transmit or display an image” online that is likely to “frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress” to someone who sees it. Violations can get you almost a year in jail time or up to $2500 in fines.

So… let’s say you draw a stick figure image of Muhammad and make it your Facebook profile picture. And someone is “emotionally distressed” by your despicable hate speech.

Next thing you know, you’re in jail or paying a steep fine.

It doesn’t even have to be that “extreme” — any image or cartoon that might offend someone could be illegal under this law.

Governor Bill Haslam signed the bill into law last week.

Reader Micah points out another problem:

I’m kind of worried, because as a citizen of Tennessee and as a photographic atheistic artist, sometimes I like to depict religious movements in offensive, ironic ways in my photographs and post them on the internet for brief periods of time. My work is DEFINITELY offensive. So, do I lose my very right to be an artist and post my work on the internet by the very nature of this law? I know I can continue to show my work in art shows, but utilizing the internet is one of the biggest ways to get your name out there!

Can we get all of you in TN reading this to make a Muhammad image your new profile picture? Let them try and prosecute you. Let them take this to a judge. It’s obviously unconstitutional. I would think the ACLU would have your back.

The law shouldn’t hold up, right…?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Grifter

    It have better not hold up…I don’t remember the 1st amendment having “unless it hurts yo’ feewings” or “Unless it’s said to a douchebag who might respond like a douchebag” clauses.

  • Ryan

    Alternatively, can we request that churches be fined for putting religious images on their websites that causes us atheists emotional distress?

  • Russ

    Can we just say that images of Jesus and/or crosses frighten, intimidate and cause us emotional distress? Let’s make the law protect us against the images that trouble us.

  • AJ

    Ooh, I know… Let’s just make the internet text only. Then that way no one ever has to see anything that might offend.

  • Juno

    Wait, so wouldn’t that also mean that horror pictures such as Slenderman be illegal as well? There are tons of frightening images made that aren’t offensive. Will they make provisions for these or will they just punishable as well?

  • mike

    1. Watch _____ horror movie on Netflix in a Starbucks over their ATT wifi
    2. Sue Netflix, Starbucks, and ATT
    3. ????????
    4. Profit.

    Does this mean that Google must pull out of Tennessee (gigiddy) or is there an exemption for ISP’s?

    Does TN display current court documents like subpoenas on an official website?

    Or this legislation? What if this legislation frightens me?

  • So I can draw pictures of guns, pose with a gun, make videos of myself shooting with guns but I may not be able to put up an atheist billboard or wear a Zombie Jesus t-shirt in Tennessee?

  • Valdyr

    This law frightens, intimidates and emotionally distresses me. What is my legal recourse against the state of Tennessee?

  • As I posted on my tumblr this morning- nowhere in the constitution or bill of rights do I see that you have the right to not be offended.

  • This scares me. I live right outside of Tennessee and will be going to school in Memphis this fall. This crap better get struck down, and it better not come to Mississippi.

  • Marguerite

    Wow, that’s genuinely disturbing. What happened to freedom of speech? I guess it frightened some lawmakers…

  • Are you kidding me? I’m from TN, and plan to move back to be close to family when we have kids, but I’m seriously starting to reconsider. What with this and the House of Representatives approving a bill to make teaching Creationism legal, this state is getting worse and worse.

  • AteoAbsurdo

    The cross is an ancient symbol of torture. I think anyone of “reasonable sensibilities” would note that torture devices are likely to cause “emotional distress.”

  • Rebecca

    If it stays can we use it against fundie anti-choicers who show photos on their websites of their parades with placards of dead fetuses?

  • ckitching

    Why just online pictures? Why not photography or text of any kind that offends?

  • Rich Wilson

    (2)The offense described in subdivision (a)(4)shall not apply to an entity providing an electronic communications service to the public in the normal course of providing that service.

    So AT&T, Google and Starbucks are safe.

    You know, this is just amending an existing law to better define ‘communicate’ and to exempt carriers. If the exiting law deals with just being offended, then maybe this isn’t so bad? Yelling ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater isn’t protected speech, right?

  • Mariela

    Pictures of cute puppies under headlines talking about animal abuse, or like yesterday on CNN, how a family pet was mistakenly put down, cause me emotional distress. So now it will be illegal to post pictures of cute puppies?

  • Rich Wilson

    Here’s the original law

    Now, maybe the original law is overly broad, but this isn’t a ‘new’ law.

  • Horror movies consist of tens of thousands of images intended to frighten the viewer.

    The showing of a movie is not the providing of an electronic communication service.

    I conclude therefore that movie theaters in TN are now banned from showing horror movies. Or in fact, any movie with any scene in it that is in any way frightening or offensive or distressing. (Like, any movie with an actual plot.)

  • Nancy

    I didn’t know we were constitutionally guaranteed to not be frightened, intimidated or emotionally distressed. I have been all three many times in my life. Can I take it to court?? Let’s see…my ex-boyfriend, my boss, the news, George Bush, my brother, ……

  • Casey

    Does that mean they can arrest the Westboro Baptist protesters now?

  • twinertia

    I am SO gonna go lawsuit-crazy until this idiocy gets ripped off the books!

  • Cassie

    How crazy are the folks in TN to pass such a stupid law? What happened to freedom of expression/speech?

    Funny that I never heard of this before even though I’m a news junkie.

  • keystothekid

    What if I’m shipped off to Iraq and my girlfriend uploads pictures of her naughty bits to send to me and they somehow get out and seen?

    ultimate patriotic conundrum! lulz.

  • Maverick

    I would be careful about encouraging people to break a law (even a stupid, unconstitutional one) so openly, even though I agree with the sentiment.

    Although we could probably use the law to jail and/or beggar almost every religious leader and person in TN because of the horrible, horrible atrocities that are so strongly associated with their religious symbols that will certainly be displayed on their websites, social networking sites, etc. . A possible added bonus is that all these “up to $2500” fines may go a long way to fixing any TN budget problems.

  • Drakk

    So does this mean you can’t show someone the blue maze game in Tennessee?

  • Matt H


    Ooh, I know… Let’s just make the internet text only. Then that way no one ever has to see anything that might offend.


  • Lin

    Do we know whether the intent behind this is solely/mainly to prevent offensive religious images?

    I ask because, while I agree that it’s a stupid law, I’m reminded of the reactions to some other laws:

    Hate speech legislation in Canada turns into Christians crying that if their pastor says it’s a sin he’ll be dragged away in handcuffs.
    Bill C51 in Canada has woo-believing, anti-Big-Pharma moms crying that they’ll be arrested for giving their child blueberries for a snack.

  • This is an awesome law. Now crucifixes with a tortured Jesus on them are illegal. I am emotionally distressed by seeing that poor guy being tortured like that. I demand justice! 😉

  • cat

    The law looks okay to me, as long as the terms are being used in the way that they generally are the legal field in regards to harassment or civil charges for infliction of emotional distress. The sort of behavior that is generally considered legally actionable emotional distress does not include general offensive political speech. In the legal field, the term emotional distress has built into it that the action which caused it must be “extreme and outrageous” and (in the words of the Kansas Supreme court) “outrageous to the point that it goes beyond the bounds of decency and is utterly intolerable in a civilized society” (Roberts v. Saylor 637 P.2d 1175 (Kansas 1981). Lawyers are going to read a fairly high standard into that, and statutes are written for lawyers, not everyone else. The only way I can see this running into trouble is that it allows negligent or true statements against public figures to count, and the Supreme court has generally required that statements be false and at least reckless, false, and to have been done with “actual malice” for public figures to collect emotional distress damages (see Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988) – this case involved a joke printed in the magazine which stated Falwell had incestuous sex with his mother in an outhouse). Really though, as long as the prosecutors in Tennesee don’t start playing fast and loose with the way these terms traditionally are used, the law should be okay-and so should cartoons of Muhammed.

    I suspect that this is the same language used in the harassment statute already and the amendment merely includes electronic contact/publication within its harassment rules. Again, it looks like you should be okay as long as you don’t use the internet to harass people.

  • Rich Wilson

    Like cat said (or, if you scroll up a bit, you’ll find a guy named Rich Wilson posted a link to the actual original law.

    California has:

    “Harassment” is unlawful violence, a credible threat of violence, or a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that seriously alarms, annoys, or harasses the person, and that serves no legitimate purpose. The course of conduct must be such as would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress, and must actually cause substantial emotional distress to the petitioner.

    So as long as the victim actually suffers substantial emotional distress…

    NY has

    Aggravated harassment in the second degree, a class A misdemeanor, can occur in several ways. Someone who communicates or attempts to communicate with another person with the intention of causing alarm or annoyance faces a charge of second-degree aggravated harassment.

    So communicating with someone with the intent of annoying them…

    This isn’t anything new. This is an update to an existing law and there are similar laws in all states.

  • Jantien

    I get emotionally distressed when I see crosses… does that mean I can Sue?

  • beijingrrl

    I agree that the law isn’t very specific, but I doubt it’s meant to address religious issues. I’d guess it’s more to stop things like cyber bullying, where people post things to intimidate people they know.

  • Baconsbud

    I can see this law being seriously abused before it gets thrown out. I can’t see this standing up as a law for long. I hope some atheist act childish and make claims that images of christian nature are “frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress”. I wonder what those that voted for it would have to say?

  • Scott

    Atheists should sue Christians, then, for their depictions of Hell, causing emotional distress about the possibility suffering.

  • I suggest the a bunch of Tennessee citizens should tell their local law enforcement that they find the pictures of Governor Bill Haslam offensive and they want something done about it.

    Surely if enough people do that then someone will realise the ridiculousness of the whole thing.

  • dwasifar

    I seriously doubt that a flurry of pictures of Mohammed will result in prosecution. Oversensitive muslims are not who this law is designed to favor.

    Now, if everyone were to put up a picture of Piss Christ

  • Mihangel apYrs

    So those images of Jeebus being tortured to death should be banned.

    I couldn’t agree more

  • Hank

    An atheist billboard with words suggesting there is no god would qualify as an “image”, wouldn’t it? How about a demotivational style poster with the same suggestion?

  • I wonder if the Tennessee government can be prosecuted because of the visual representation of their new law (after all, that’s what text is, a visual representation of human language) causing me emotional distress?

  • Mike

    So does this mean everyone from TN has to remove their Facebook picture?


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