Cyberbullying Law Makes Being Mean Online A Felony

Legislators apparently unaware of First Amendment

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I always thought that of all the amendments to the US Constitution, the first one was both the most memorable and the easiest to understand: You can say what you like, outside of the famous “shouting fire” example, and the government can’t stop you. Easy. A toddler could get it.

(My mother taught civics/law and justice for 25 years, and I assure you that when your humble author was a toddler he understood the First Amendment.)

But US Representative Linda Sanchez (D-CA) and 14 other House members are grownups smart enough to get themselves elected to Congress, and they still don’t get it? Sanchez, with 14 cosponsors, has reintroduced the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, which reads:
Internet Felony
“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.”

By “electronic means” they mean: any equipment dependent on electrical power to access an information service, including email, instant messaging, blogs, websites, telephones, and text messages.

So, that’s 15 US representatives who either don’t understand or are unfamiliar with the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Maybe we should bring my mother out of retirement and require all of our representatives to take her ninth grade civics class before writing legislation.

The bill is named for the poor girl who committed suicide after being harassed online by a classmate’s mother. Though no one (I hope) sympathizes with the heinous actions of Lori Drew, Sanchez should be roundly harangued for exploiting a child’s sad story to manipulate the heartstrings of other legislators to the point Congress passes a law abridging freedom of speech.

See what I did there? If I said that twice, if Sanchez’s feelings were hurt, and a court judged my statement “severe,” I’d be a felon facing two years in prison. I haven’t said anything especially vicious, just harshly criticized a politician on the Internet, but the problem with this cyberbullying legislation is that what words like coercion, intimidate, harass, emotional stress, severe, and hostile are subject to vast differences in interpretation.

Eugene Volokh, professor of law at UCLA School of Law, outlines six ways this law could be abused, which I’ll paraphrase as follows:

  1. Repeatedly petitioning (harassing) a politician via email using potentially hostile or severe words (hypocrite, fool, traitor).
  2. Blogs and editorials repeatedly using the same type of language as above.
  3. Shaming a public figure (intending to cause substantial emotional distress).
  4. Repeatedly and angrily emailing a company that refuses to refund money owed.
  5. Online boycotts and petitions.
  6. Angry emails from a wife to a husband who cheated on her.

It’s potentially limitless the situations to which this language could apply. Though not expressly mentioned in the definition of “electronic means,” the atrociously loose definition could also apply to TV and radio.

A critic in response may argue such scenarios are highly unlikely, but hardly a day goes by I don’t see a story of authority abusing its power for its own reasons. An Orlando police chief threatening a blogger with a defamation suit, his attorney asserting the “truth is not always a defense” in the process, comes to mind. An Alaskan politician outing an anonymous blogger for revenge is another example (talk about cyberbullying!). The ways authority figures have abused their powers are far too numerous to list.

In June 2008, the first time Sanchez tried to introduce this legislation (it never came to a vote before the previous session ended), Volokh succinctly addresses the broadness of the language:

“Its reference to blogs and websites strongly suggests that it deliberately addresses one-to-many publishing media as well as one-to-one email and text messaging — but even without that reference, it would literally cover any ‘communication,’ with no limitation that the communication be sent specifically to the distressed person.”

Yep, even Twitter. No mean tweeting allowed.

Even more succinct is CJ Ciaramella, of the Oregon Communicator: “Rep. Sanchez seems to believe that it aught to be illegal to make someone feel bad.”

Let me be even more succinct: good intentions don’t always make good law.

Cyberbullying, like bullying before there were various electronic means to conduct it, is an unfortunate fact of life, like viruses and skinned knees. I would like to protect my daughter from all those things forever, but I also know that her having to deal with them eventually will make her a stronger, more unflappable adult (who also knows Daddy’s ready to kick some tail if necessary!). In a perfect world, we could legislate niceness, but this world is far from perfect, no matter how much padding we put down to protect our little darlings’ noggins and shins.

This bill is currently under review by the House Judiciary Committee, where, even if committee members appreciate the intent, it will likely meet its Constitutional end. One imagines at least a few on the Judiciary Committee have taken a ninth grade civics course. If not, God help us.

Cyberbullying Law Makes Being Mean Online A Felony
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  • YAY

    This is awesome!!

    Does this mean google will have to remove HATE pages to complY?

  • Guest

    “with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person,”

    Whats wrong with laws to prevent that? Its the same thing as yelling fire in a movie theater, which you pointed out you understand. why cant you understand this?

    • Jason Lee Miller

      Speech to invoke public panic (a la the media’s coverage of the new Black Death that is swine flu, lol) is not the same as a group of judges/jurors/authority figures with possible bias/interest/affectation arbitrarily deciding what is “intent” and what constitutes coercion, intimidation, harassment, or substantial emotional stress. Not only are the definitions of these terms too broad and require too much individual interpretation, but they can be applied, as illustrated in the article, to far too many circumstances and have enormous potential for abuse.

      Crowds at sporting events participate in this type of speech all the time, directed toward officials and coaches and players. Likewise, citizens toward politicians, school board members, the press. Saying to someone “You’re a worthless idiot who should go hang himself” could be qualify under this definition. Does a person have a right to say that? Of course he does. Is it an awful thing to say? Absolutely it is.

      The enshrinement of free speech is meant to protect whistleblowers and to encourage debate without fear of government retribution. And very often that which protects the good, protects the bad as well, and is the nature of the beast.

      • Guest

        No ,free speech was meant to ensure that every one could speak their mind against the establishment without fear of reprisal. Had nothing to do with whistle blowers. It had to do with common people like you and I.

        Free speech was not intended to be a way to excuse behavior that hateful. And thats what bullying is.
        As far as sporting events, there are plenty of derogatory terms floating about yes, but I daresay a few things WILL get you thrown out . Call a ballplayer a hateful ethnic slur at a sporting event and see what happens.

        yelling out that someone is a steroid user and shouldn’t be playing is a lot different than insulting his ethnicity.

        free speech cannot be used to protect the government from harrasing or threatening individuals, nor can it be used to protect an individuals hateful and harrasing or threatening of another individual.

        You cannot pick and choose when to apply it. For instance, I may not agree with someone and may call them narrow minded and ignorant. I am not being hateful, even though that may not be nice. I am using free speech.

        If I were to say other things that we’re aimed at his raced in a hurtful way, and that harm should come to him, that is hateful and is NOT free speech. Your example falls under this heading, and if you were to say that to a politician or email that to one you’d have the secret service at your door real quick.

        that being said i don’t think that you advocate any one hurling hateful epitaphs at anyone, I just feel that you are missing the point of what free speech is meant to do.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ rebecca

      exactly!!!! if u saw someone emotionally abusing someone in there home everyday,what would you do?

  • Bella

    I don’t like what that lady did to that girl and she is going to prison for it. But I think this law goes too far.

    Also, sites like Perez Hilton will be done for, every article of his is vitriolic and nasty. I am sure a lot of people would like to see him go away, but I don’t this law is the way to do it.

  • http://quotebean.co.uk David O Waters

    I do not think that this law can be applicable under a lot of circumstances since it is difficult to completely determine the intentions and context of any situation without proper witness. Internet is difficult in this regard specially when it comes to judging peple’s behavior. You cannot surely say who was hurt how. If the law passes, its not good but i m sure it wont go through.

  • http://www.scwxa.org Kevin Martin

    Please read the following. Do not judge me for my actions of threatening back or what I have done. The actions of a person are created by the outside influence and bullies are number one causes. Read on …

    Hello, I have informed the lawmakers of this bill of my past. I have a history of threatening others back for bullying me off and online. I have proof in this website.

    I am the owner of SCWXA.org – The Southern California Weather Authority, and for years I have been baited by people in and around this industry for just forecasting the weather. Some threatened my life and I did it back.

    The FBI has been here six times since 2003 for my threatening others back. I will get this bill passed if it is the last thing I do. I have informed them of this website which is 100% LIVING PROOF cyberbullying creates the mind of murders, and suicidal people.

    I am living proof this happens. I have not killed someone or myself yet but things in my mind because of this are not good at times. I control it to an extent but I snap hard if bullied.

    If you think Columbine’s shooting was just a phase you are not telling the truth. Columbine’s shooters targeted random people BUT most importantly the people who screwed with them in school first. The bullies got shot. One of their friends was almost shot and they told him to identify himself. Well guess what? He did and they were friends and they told him to GET OUT OF THERE, he survived. They let ones nice to them go. This is the mind of a psychopath, created by bullies today.

    Them and me are proof this needs to stop and I will do everything I can do show the evidence of my past and what could be my future if this does not stop.

    Freedom of speech is NOT freedom to harm others. Freedom of speech is what I am doing now, speaking out my mind how this country is becoming unless we do something to STOP people.

    The human brain is a computer, and that computer can be programmed by bullies to kill or commit suicide. This happens through depression and I’ve gone through the stages and still do sometimes. I control it from going physical but others cannot do it.

    My name is Kevin Martin, I am with SCWXA.org, Southern California Weather Authority and I am living proof this bill must pass, which would be the smartest thing this country has done to prevent future killers and suicidal thoughts.

    Kevin Martin

    • Drakodan

      “I am living proof this bill must pass, which would be the smartest thing this country has done to prevent future killers and suicidal thoughts.”

      Yeah, because the parents have no responsibility at all to monitor what their kids do and make sure they’re safe online, right?

  • rob

    this person is cyber bullying me on youtube witch is really annoying this man says he posted my youtube channel to several different porn sites and a couple of his friends are harassing me pleases someone help me this guy is harassing a bunch of other people too and him and his gang of friends must stop cuz they are harrassing me too this is proof.

    http://www.youtube.com/diceman234 my youtube channel. read the comments and it is proof

  • http://www.nixonwelfarehire.co.uk Welfare Unit Accomodation Hire

    I do laugh:

    “Repeatedly petitioning (harassing) a politician via email using potentially hostile or severe words (hypocrite, fool, traitor).”

    They need this done to wake them up to the corruption going on at the moment.

  • http://www.nixonsepticwaste.co.uk Septic Tank Waste Removal

    George Orwell’s 1984 is coming true – Disguised as a solution to the problem the (elite) system creates.

    We need to become concious of what “the big picture is” to see were we are headed (if not here).

    • http://www.facebook.com/ rebecca

      was intended to do good things,it wasn’t put in place for this garbage!

  • Hurt

    In responce; I’d like to say I think we all like to make friends and our first trip to the internet we’d probably most of us would like to start every adventure with a good attitude that things will be nice and the trip will be somewhat productive; memorable and fun.
    However; for some of us the trip to cyber-space has been anything but enjoyable as you see by the comments above this can happen in emails amongest co-workers; threats to employees or employers even as one man said someone who has been harrassed on you-tube or myspace etc;

    Cyber-Bullying Exists where it can hurt the person being attacked especially when its been happening over a period of years. It is a shame these people often travel in groups and often like to target individuals who are what they consider weaker then themselves to make themselves look better which if you are a mature adult you would I hope not take part in.
    And its also been said this is most likely to happen amongest teenagers; but some adults take part in also im afraid like the story we know of where the girl commited suicide.

    I’d share my story but in actual fear of further attacks I will and have kept things to myself I did tell two men online what was happening and they have become close friends.

    I hope something is done about cyber-bullying because it can lead to depression and lots of hurt.
    I’d have to say the other comment about hurting someone else because you have been hurt
    isn’t where i’m coming from at all! And truthfully; you don’t solve problems with anger & aggression by more anger & aggression.

    I’d met someone online; a few years back, I instantly liked them and have cherished the rocky; adorable friendship we have had. We can say a few words and correspond like two lil giddy teens and i know we love each other.

    Unfortunately; people who attached themselves to them as their friends maybe even their children perhaps or a ungenuine lover possibly. Who really knows at this point? maybe their best buddies!
    But; This person has attached themselves & Has gotten involved as somewhat of a tri-angle in our lil sorrid affair all online. Its a shame also because of so much dishonesty as well the
    was brought into the group mentality issue.

    And condoned by all. And I really think when the pain travels in a group one needs to ask who are these people? and why do they enjoy hurting someone?
    If you mention to them you are depressed over this yes a break of some kind can be taken in the realtionship. However, unfortunately for the one whose being attacked then gets told repeatedly get back on your meds; you need psycho help and the whole nine yards.

    When actually its their abusive behavior thats triggering the depression.
    A person being attacked then feels more and more isolated and is usually told by the individual you have no friends and like was said above
    They have even told of possibly some infidelities you have secretly shared with them online.
    Because You Thought they were a true friend.
    But they tell the person maybe a “significant other” further reeking havoc in your life & even danger.

    And then continue even more control over you.
    Meanwhile; you get further and further depressed and possibly really care for them.
    You would THINK; some adult at this point would step into the situation and make it stop.
    But often times a victim of abuse whether in the real life scenarios or online bullying
    always turns the guilt on themselves and asked what have i done wrong?
    which only leads to further bullying. I have really suffered a lot of hurt from bullying
    and couldn’t imagine if I was a teenager how i’d felt at this point.

    Its wrong mean and hateful.
    And its too bad the adults surrounding the issue cannot either make it stop or realize it is really taking place. Because the blind eyes to it! Have only worsened the situation.
    I have no further choice in the matter but to cut off all communication with all the persons involved. This is what my situation has come to.
    I know there is shame in admitting you have been hurt for the one abused and what happens a lot in these cases also; the one bullying claims they have been hurt also.
    Which is No How! No Way true! in my case. I have a good reputation online and have formed closed friends with trust worthy people.
    Whats awful is if you don’t admit to someone at some point it only continues.

    Its just really a shame that individuals who are even doing this it seems thinks its all in good fun;
    At the cost of your happiness and well being.

  • Guest

    This is a wonderful law! Some employers have sunk so low as to use the internet to cyberbully people who exercise their civil rights and/or file complaints when they are abused at work. I’ve been cyberbullied for over 10 years because I refused to sleep with a supervisor and complained to HR about it. Unfortunately, the fact that I complained and took legal action to protect my rights is on the internet 10 years later. I have requested that it be removed many times and explained that it reminds me and my family of a very terrible time and dark time, is depressing and harms my ability to get other work. It has also caused some very uncomfortable situations. It is a form of continual victimization, is hateful, and mean spirited. I am very happy that our representatives are finally trying to do something about this. It is to easy to publish things on the internet that are harmful to others. If there are no repercussions, it will only get worse.

  • Luv2Luv_NotLuv2Hate

    I’ve heard this so-called “defense”… tired out as it is, time and again… and what I see each time I hear it (or in this case read it) is this… people’s idea of exercising their freedom of speech now seems mostly centered around attacking others the3se days… regardless of whether it’s deserved or not. Same goes for “real” life as well.

    Thing is, hate is hate is hate… anyway you slice it. And also, speaking of “{rights”.. regardless of what anyone else says to you before you choose to open you pie hole… 2 wrongs do NOT make a right.

    Our country ’tis of thee haters and misery, of them I loathe.

    Our number one priority of anyone of us should not be about whether we have the freedom to spew hateful bi9le at anyone we feel somehow “deserves it”, but rather learning to love to love, NOT love to hate, and spread hate through our words… whether those written or spoken to one another.

    If you’re gonna “lobby” for something, lobby for THAT. Truthful and nice words, NOT condoning the freedom to hate whomever you choose and be able to say it regardless of whether you are correct in hating on the people you hate or not. And yes that IS the REAL issue here, make no mistake about it.

  • Guest

    I think the point of this law is focused at young children who are being bullied in and outside of school. This type of act can really effect a child and their self esteem. Something needs to be done to ensure a clear message is sent, “this type of behavior will not be tolerated and it will be punished” Before the internet bullying happened on the playground, where teachers could interdict and punish the child for his behavior. Now these bullying cowards hide behind a computer screen and commit these acts. As times change, the laws need to change as well!

    Additionally, you may want to review the defimation of charcater law, specifically where it talks about the law and defaming political figures or those in the public eye. Your aforementioned examples above hold no ground and do not validate your point.

    You apparently do not have children.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ rebecca

    please pass this law ..you don’t know the stress and emotional well being of a person who gose threw this misery as i am now with facebook ,,,there reporting systems fails to do anything…if anyone know what i can do please let me know..

    • http://www.facebook.com/ rebecca

      i could not imagin what a child endures !!

  • http://www.facebook.com/ rebecca

    one day this will happen to you or a family member,when it dose then the tables will turn and new insight will come to you…it will happen one time or another if laws like this are not put into effect…

  • Guest

    Do you have children?

  • Guest

    This is not the same bullying that we recieved in school. This is public humiliation, where thousands can see it, and reply with their own snide remarks. Adolecence is hard enough with out the group bashings these internet sites create. These “cyberbulliers” would not stand in a group of 40 or 50 harrassing a person all at the same time. It’s their way of trying to be part of the “group”. I have a 16 year old daughter that has been dealing with this for over a year. I have sought support from the offenders parents and the school. Nothing has changed. I don’t think it should be a felony offense, but I think a Class A Misdemenor would be a good call. The children need to have consequences for their behaviors. THEIR VICTIMS CERTAINLY DO!

  • Victoria

    This law needs to be set into place if i hear of more child killing themselves due to bullying then obviously this country or any other is not doing their jobs at protecting us! I wear a stop bullying rubber band on a daily basis and im against it 100% i was bullied in school and its not something anyone would wanna go through i have had other family members that have also been bullied and it has resulted in heart break to watch them do the things they do! so yea something needs to be done….. nobody should be allowed to hurt people the way they do, and ya you can speak your mind but like i was always taught ” If you dont have anything nice to say, then dont say anything at all”

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