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3/14/2006
04:04 PM
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Internet Backlash Stalls Jersey Civility Bill

A New Jersey lawmaker's attempt to legislate civility on an Internet discussion board runs into a wall of opposition from bloggers and others who see it as an attempt to stifle free speech.

A New Jersey Assemblyman's Internet civility bill is on ice since opponents blasted it as an assault on free speech.

Assemblyman Peter Biondi and his staff said they were trying to curb malicious exchanges on some local discussion boards when they introduced a bill requiring people to provide their real names and addresses before posting on public Web sites. The bill also stated that hosts could be sued for failing to disclose the identities of people disseminating false or defamatory information.

Biondi's staff drafted the measure late last year. In was introduced in January. The bill hadn't even made it to committee before a small weekly newspaper published an article about it and Internet news providers began spreading the word. Then, callers from as far away as Canada deluged Biondi's office with complaints.

"For a bill that's basically one of 45 just sitting there to be picked out – and for people in Portland, Oregon and Canadian broadcasters to be calling about it – it's a little bizarre," Biondi's Chief of Staff Scott Ross said during an interview. "For something that's not even on the radar screen in Trenton, it's incredible. It's definitely a first for us. It hit the Drudge Report and it was like 'Holy moly!"

Ross said that Biondi and his staff were responding to requests from local constituents who complained about the viciousness of local discussion boards littered with name-calling. They were shocked that the bill – drafted to bring decorum to Internet discussions – drew an intense response from Internet users far beyond the Garden State's boundaries.

"We veered out of our comfort zone with this one," Ross said. "We're usually open space, quality-of-life kind of guys. We veered into technology and we were pretty much taken off guard when got hit with a couple hundred e-mails last week."

BuzzMachine blogger and journalist Jeff Jarvis said he is proud to have started the forums that prompted Biondi to introduce the "stupidest legislation in memory."

Critics said the law would be unconstitutional and impossible to enforce. Ross said he can see things from their perspective, but he still believes people should maintain civility online.

"You could be talking to your neighbor and not even know it," he said.

Biondi is anticipating a legal opinion from his state legislature's nonpartisan research division by the end of this week.

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