A bill that would make it illegal to disclose personal restricted information was sent back to the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday after delegates on the floor raised concerns that the bill is too vague and would flood West Virginia’s court system with substantial constitutional questions.
Following about 20 minutes of debate, with at least five delegates questioning the practical application of the bill, House Judiciary Chairman Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, asked that House Bill 3134 be returned to the committee.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, granted Capito’s motion.
As debate progressed, lawmakers raised concerns that the bill is so vague that it would lead to criminal court cases that pit questions of a person’s freedom of speech against questions of a person’s right to privacy.
If it becomes law, House Bill 3134 will make it illegal to share a person’s personal information with the intent of threatening or intimidating someone, or as part of an effort to incite violence against them.
The bill is very likely to change in the hands of House Judiciary Committee members. However, as it stands, the proposed law would state that there has to be an element of intent to cause violence against someone that accompanies the sharing of their personal information before it would constitute a crime.
Restricted information that would be subject to the law includes Social Security numbers, unlisted telephone numbers, credit card numbers, a driver’s license number, a home address and a secondary address.
The crime would be a misdemeanor, but would become a felony if the information shared belonged to people related to the justice system, including law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges, jury members, people testifying in court as witnesses, and police informants.
The bill means to address an online activity known as “doxxing,” which is when someone’s private personal information, usually their phone number or home address, is made public for the purpose of getting others to harass or threaten them.
At the misdemeanor level, Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, said the bill, left open to too broad interpretation by bad actors, could be used as a political weapon.
“This bill gets into dangerous territory,” McGeehan said. “We have private citizens that have every right to contact public officials, and if those conversations get heated, public officials, who are in charge of the apparatus of the state, could interpret that very easily as some sort of intimidation. This is a slippery slope we shouldn’t go down.”
House Government Organization Chairman Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, likewise said elected officials’ personal information often is made public and shared on social media as a means for constituents to share concerns or to discuss certain issues, and the bill, while well intended, could have far-ranging effects beyond its intent.
“I get phone calls from my constituents on my mobile phone,” Steele said. “They’re not always pleased with whatever we’re doing and, a lot of times, they need to blow off some steam. Maybe, to some people, that could come off as threatening, but, in reality, what those people are trying to do is just engage us. Even though sometimes it’s not the best conversation on Earth, it is a conversation we signed up for.”
Under questioning by McGeehan, Delegate Jonathan Pinson, R-Mason, a former West Virginia State Police trooper and the bill’s lead sponsor, said he thought McGeehan was misconstruing the situations the bill means to address.
Pinson did not object to returning the bill to the Judiciary to narrow its scope.
It wasn’t clear Thursday if the Judiciary Committee plans to reconsider the bill.