Proposed "cyberbullying" House Bill is a serious threat to free speech
Last year, Democratic Congresswoman Linda Sanchez sponsored the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, which was in response to the 2006 suicide of a teenage girl who had been bullied online.
The proposed bill was very broad and the subject was relatively unknown to members of congress, so the bill ended up dying.
Now that members are somewhat more familiar with the subject, the Californian congresswoman has reintroduced the bill and this time has 17 co-sponsors, including democrats and republicans.
But the bill is just as broad as it was last year, meaning it could lead to anybody being imprisoned for their blogging.
The bill defines cyberbullying as:
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.
Although there are probably a few people who have suffered emotional distress through my writing, I am very careful not to libel anybody. However, under Sanchez’s proposed bill, it wouldn’t be that difficult to imprison me because of my writing. Or a number of otherbloggers for that matter.
UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh who pens The Volokh Conspiracy said the bill in unconstitutional and listed six scenarios in which it can be abused:
1. I try to coerce a politician into voting a particular way, by repeatedly blogging (using a hostile tone) about what a hypocrite / campaign promise breaker / fool / etc. he would be if he voted the other way. I am transmitting in interstate commerce a communication with the intent to coerce using electronic means (a blog) “to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior” — unless, of course, my statements aren’t seen as “severe,” a term that is entirely undefined and unclear. Result: I am a felon, unless somehow my “behavior” isn’t “severe.”
2. A newspaper reporter or editorialist tries to do the same, in columns that are posted on the newspaper’s Web site. Result: Felony, unless somehow my “behavior” isn’t severe.
3. The politician votes the wrong way. I think that’s an evil, tyrannical vote, so I repeatedly and harshly condemn the politician on my blog, hoping that he’ll get very upset (and rightly so, since I think he deserves to feel ashamed of himself, and loathed by others). I am transmitting a communication with the the intent to cause substantial emotional distress, using electronic means (a blog) “to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior.” (I might also be said to be intending to “harass” — who knows, given how vague the term is? — but the result is the same even if we set that aside.) Result: I am a felon, subject to the usual utter uncertainty about what “severe” means.
4. A company delivers me shoddy goods, and refuses to refund my money. I e-mail it several times, threatening to sue if they don’t give me a refund, and I use “hostile” language. I am transmitting a communication with the intent to coerce, using electronic means “to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior.” Result: I am a felon, if my behavior is “severe.”
5. Several people use blogs or Web-based newspaper articles to organize a boycott of a company, hoping to get it to change some policy they disapprove of. They are transmitting communications with the intent to coerce, using electronic means “to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior.” Result: Those people are a felon. (Isn’t threatening a company with possible massive losses “severe”? But again, who knows?)
6. John cheats on Mary. Mary wants John to feel like the scumbag that he is, so she sends him two hostile messages telling him how much he’s hurt her, how much she now hates him, and how bad he should feel. She doesn’t threaten him with violence (there are separate laws barring that, and this law would apply even in the absence of a threat). She is transmitting communications with the intent to cause substantial emotional distress, using electronic means “to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior.” Result: Mary is a felon, again if her behavior is “severe.”