Bill Could Mean Jail for Cyberbullies

A bill in Congress aimed at preventing cyberbullying could ensnare millions of people who comment on the Internet and has raised concerns about violating free speech rights.

The Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act (HR 1966), which moved to the subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the House Judiciary Committee in May, makes electronic communication on the Internet a felony in cases where “the intent is to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person” and the communication is “severe, repeated, and hostile.”

Communication by electronic means is defined in the bill as any electronic transmission, “including email, instant messaging, blogs, websites, telephones, and text messages.” The bill is named after Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide in 2006 after being harassed and bullied on the social networking site MySpace.

‘Wildly Overbroad’

The chief sponsor of HR 1966, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA), wrote on The Huffington Post, a popular blog, “Congress has no interest in censoring speech and it will not do so if it passes this bill.”

But Andrew Grossman, a senior legal policy analyst at the Washington, DC-based Heritage Foundation, says the bill is “wildly overbroad” and “would affect an enormous realm of behavior that has nothing to do with cyberbullying.”

“Just because a series of communications are ‘severe, repeated, and hostile’ doesn’t make them bad,” Grossman said. “It also doesn’t get them outside the box of free speech. Any communication where you might contact someone repeatedly to get them to do something, whether it’s to pay a bill, to vote for a piece of legislation, to attend a party, any of these would be covered. So it’s clearly overbroad and affects far more than cyberbullying.”

Wouldn’t Have Helped Meier

Grossman adds the bill named for Megan Meier would not have helped in her case. Lori Drew—the woman who was found guilty in 2008 of setting up a false identity on MySpace to woo and then later break up with and publicly humiliate Meier—would probably have evaded prosecution under the bill.

“This bill would have done nothing whatsoever in the Megan Meier case,” Grossman said. “Lori Drew, who was prosecuted under a federal hacking statute, actually did not transmit any of the messages at issue in that case. Other people sent those messages, and it’s not clear that they had [a harassing] intent at all. So it certainly would not have had any application against Lori Drew.”

Cyberbullying, says Grossman, “is just the latest manifestation of discordant relationships that have existed since time immemorial. The fact that these relationships happen on the Internet doesn’t alter the equation.”

Constitutionality Questioned

Daniel Ballon, a senior fellow in technology studies at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute, said “the problem with designing a law around such a specific, high-profile anecdote is that emotions can prevent people from asking the important questions.”

“As the Megan Meier case proved,” Ballon said. “The key question to ask, when considering legislation, is not merely, ‘How should this law be applied?’ but rather, ‘How could this law be applied?’ On its face, it could be used to selectively silence any criticism on the Internet.

“If it’s true that truth hurts, then suddenly it would be a felony for anyone to tell truth to power,” Ballon added. “Considering that this is the very purpose of a free press, I can’t imagine how this bill would pass constitutional muster.”

Chilling Effect

Grossman agrees, saying the proposed law “is unconstitutional and would be struck down on its first application.”

But between the time the bill was enacted into law and the time it was struck down by the Supreme Court, the law would have a chilling effect on free speech, Grossman added.

Ballon notes the People’s Republic of China now requires all computer manufacturers to ship bundled software to aid in the government’s attempts to control content.

“If Congress passes this bill, it might also agree that ‘unhealthy words’ on the Internet pose a serious threat to the ‘healthy growth of young people,’ and should be banned altogether,” Ballon warned.

Loren Heal ([email protected]) writes from Neoga, Illinois.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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