For the past few months, I have been aware of the cyberbullying bill introduced by Representative Linda Sanchez, which basically amounts to a trampling of first amendment rights. The bill is also known as the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, named for a girl who committed suicide after receiving a series of horrendous messages were directed towards her on MySpace.
The part of the bill that is particularly troubling is this:
`Sec. 881. Cyberbullying
`(a) Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication, with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person, using electronic means to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.
`(b) As used in this section–
`(1) the term `communication’ means the electronic transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received; and
`(2) the term `electronic means’ means any equipment dependent on electrical power to access an information service, including email, instant messaging, blogs, websites, telephones, and text messages.’.
(b) Clerical Amendment- The table of sections at the beginning of chapter 41 of title 18, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end the following new item:
How can anyone determine if electronic communication or perhaps even criticism on a blog or public message board has been written with the intention to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause emotional distress? Just this week, we saw Meghan McCain, daughter of Senator John McCain, post a somewhat provocative picture on her Twitter account, and then become disturbed by the reactions that it caused. Could the written electronic reactions or even the posting of the picture cause emotional distress to McCain or those who clicked on the picture?
I believe that Rep. Linda Sanchez has good intentions with this bill, meaning that she seeks to protect young people from hurtful speech and harassment, but this isn’t the way to go about it. We have endured 8 years of limits on our civil liberties with the Patriot Act, and in my view, we don’t need additional restrictions on our fundamental rights. We need a return to civility and better parenting to prevent the kind of attacks that Megan Meier endured. And you can’t legislate those basic concepts.
Rep. Sanchez has said, “I believe we can protect our right to free speech and victims of cyber-bullying at the same time.” I don’t think we can do that with the law Sanchez has proposed.
The “intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person, using electronic means to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior” clause of this bill is particularly troubling for political bloggers or any blogger who seeks to influence public opinion or a public official. For instance, this blog has a lot of posts about Rep. Linda Sanchez’s sister, Loretta, which hopefully will influence the elder Sanchez to become a more acountable public official. But in some mind, could these posts and subsequent comments be construed as causing emotional distress to Loretta Sanchez? Perhaps, given this bill’s parameters.
Finally, our prisons are already overcrowded. I would hate to see cyberbullying suits clog up our courts, especially when kids and adults can learn to avoid or address the “bullying.” As this piece in Wired states, “Sanchez’s bill goes way beyond cyberbullying and comes close to making it a federal offense to log onto the internet or use the telephone. The methods of communication where hostile speech is banned include e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, websites, telephones and text messages.” This law’s reach is plainly excessive.