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ACLU Criticizes Gov. Pritzker’s New Bill That Targets Doxxing

It makes anyone across the state who shares personal identifiable information about another person with the purpose of harming them to be found civilly liable in court. The ACLU has cited free speech concerns.

a person stands behind the counter at UpRising bakery
Owner Corinna Sac of UpRising Bakery and Cafe in Lake in the Hills on March 22, 2023. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
Last summer, a bakery in Chicago’s northwest suburbs was vandalized ahead of its plans to host a family-friendly drag show, leading to a cancellation of the sold-out event.

For Corinna Sac, the UpRising Bakery and Cafe’s owner, the broken windows and spray-painted messages were only the beginning.

In March, Sac told Illinois lawmakers that harassment stemming from the planned drag show at her Lake in the Hills business grew to include doxxing — usually defined as the sharing of personal identifiable information about another person for the purpose of harming them.

“Not one person, not even the amazing Lake in the Hills police, could help us and defend us against this,” she testified before the House Judiciary Civil Committee. “I was advised to not leave my kids alone, report anything strange, take a different way home every day, never go out in public alone, and I was advised not to work alone, which put my business under even more stress.”

Earlier this month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law a measure that makes anyone in Illinois who engages in doxxing to be found civilly liable in court. The bill passed through the House and Senate with bipartisan support — and without any opposition — during the spring legislative session.

But an often key ally to progressives like Pritzker and other like-minded Democrats, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, opposed the bill, citing free speech issues.

Some of the group’s issues were hashed out before the bill was signed into law, which goes into effect on Jan. 1. But even though the free speech concerns remained, the main House sponsor of the measure said the legislation was a necessary step to combat online harassment because previous legal remedies have been inadequate.

“Like a lot of things involving technology, the law is slow to catch up,” state Rep. Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, a Glenview Democrat, said in an interview. “Here, the focus isn’t on how you get that information, or even necessarily the information itself, but what that person does with that information.”

The anti-doxxing bill was not the only legislation that Gong-Gershowitz sponsored in the spring aimed at helping victims recover damages caused by online harassment. Earlier this summer, Pritzker signed legislation that makes anyone civilly liable if they alter images of someone else in a sexually explicit manner, a practice referred to as “deepfake porn.”

“How do we as lawmakers address the kind of severe harm that perpetrators are capable of using technology and do so in a way that, one, is effective, not only to provide victims with legal recourse but also to deter harmful behavior, but then also allows for free speech?” Gong-Gershowitz said.

Doxxing can take the form of publishing with malicious intent someone’s home address, phone number, Social Security number or any other identifiers on social media or elsewhere on the Internet.

Under the anti-doxxing law, a person could be found civilly liable if they share information with knowledge or reckless disregard that the person whose information was shared publicly “would be reasonably likely to suffer death, bodily injury, or stalking.”

Under the law, doxxing has occurred if the actions cause the victim to “suffer significant economic injury or emotional distress or to fear serious bodily injury or death of the (victim) or a family or household member,” or cause the victim “to suffer a substantial life disruption.”

In the final version of the law, legislators clarified that constitutionally protected protesting is not a form of stalking, and neither protesting nor news reporting can be considered doxxing. That version also fine-tuned what it means for doxxing to cause “emotional distress” or a “substantial life disruption.”

Similar anti-doxxing laws with noncriminal penalties have been put in place in Oregon and Nevada.

A national survey of more than 2,100 respondents released this year by the Anti-Defamation League showed that 52 percent of adults reported having been harassed online at some point, up from 40 percent in 2022 and the highest number the ADL said it has seen in four years.

“These attacks are literally ruining people’s lives by stoking fear, silencing voices and causing harm to people’s physical safety, professional reputations and emotional well-being,” David Goldenberg, the ADL’s Midwest regional director, said at the March hearing. “These actions are a severe threat to our community and are why a nuanced victim-centered approach, like (Illinois’ anti-doxxing bill), is so necessary.”

But even after the clarifications made for the final version, the ACLU expressed concerns the law could be interpreted too broadly and deprive someone of their constitutional right to free speech.

For the ACLU, the problem lies with how the law defines what it means to publish information, which, in the initial legislation was expressed as “to circulate, deliver, distribute, disseminate, post, transmit, or otherwise make available to another person.”

That definition was later clarified in an effort to exclude instances where two people are engaging in “private communications,” such as texting or email.

Angela Inzano, an attorney and lobbyist for the ACLU of Illinois who testified against the bill in Springfield, said the law’s definition of “publish” remains too broad because it only excludes one-on-one texts or emails, raising questions over whether those kinds of communications between three people are included, despite their reasonable expectation of privacy.

Also too broad, she said, is what the law considers to be “personally identifiable information.”

“The way the law is drafted right now, a person’s name and then where they work, in combination, would be considered personally identifiable information,” Inzano said in an interview. “And so, to us, a lot of folks are sharing information like that on social media and we’re just concerned about a chilling effect on that speech.”

Gong-Gershowitz, who is also an attorney, argued the final version of the law is “exceptionally narrow” and requires a plaintiff to show that the defendant intended for them to suffer death or physical injury or become a stalking victim, “which is a very high bar.”

“We’re talking about the kind of conduct that would give rise to somebody being in fear of their life,” she said. “Unfortunately we’ve seen examples of extremists who’ve doxxed individuals in order to cause them ... to end up feeling threatened and afraid for their life and their personal safety.”

At the March hearing, another woman testified being slandered online by a man who posted various personal information about her on social media. The woman also said she had taken this man to court after filing orders of protection against him.

Sac, who ended up closing her bakery a few months ago, told legislators she was targeted “simply because I chose to support all members of the local LGBTQ community and welcome a popular social gathering to take place at my place of business after hours.”

In an interview with the Tribune last week, she said she now helps low-functioning individuals with autism in the northwest suburbs and tries to work with lawmakers on issues related to hate crimes and LGBTQ issues.

She said what she went through has had an impacton her feelings about getting back into the culinary business. She expressed concern about the well-being of some of the scheduled performers at the drag show who were also doxxed.

“What you don’t have the right to do is to crowdfund hate and say, ‘This person works here. This is their name. Make them lose their job because they support gay people.’ And then that person loses their job, right?” said Sac. “That is not OK.”

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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