Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) has introduced a bill designed to combat "cyberbullying.” And in a rare instance of bipartisan solidarity, the left and the right stand opposed. Make no bones about it—the proposed legislation is a serious assault on first amendment rights.
Dubbed the “Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act,” the bill is a reaction to the 2006 suicide of 13-year-old Meier. The Missouri teen’s death was attributed to “cyberbullying”—specifically, MySpace communiqués. This set off the usual firestorm, with voices arguing for tighter regulation of the Web. The “culprit” in this case, Lori Drew, escaped conviction—as the LA Times pointed out, “there was no statute under which Drew could be charged.” Enter the Cyberbullying Prevention Act.
The background to the case is as follows: Lori Drew, her daughter, and Ashley Grills (Drew’s 18-year-old employee), created a fictitious account under the pseudonym “Josh Evans,” a 16 year old male. The intent was to use the fictitious boy to spurn Megan Meier, who’d purportedly been spreading lies about Drew’s daughter. Apparently, Drew saw the scheme as a “clever”, “funny” way to deal with Meier. The scheme went as planned, and on October 15, 2006, “Josh Evans” sent Meier the following message—“I don't know if I want to be friends with you anymore because I've heard that you are not very nice to your friends.”
Similar messages followed, with the apex being a message to Meier which read, "Everybody in O'Fallon knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a ****** rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you." Meier responded with, “You’re the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over.” Soon after, Meier was found in a closet, having hung herself.
Let’s make this clear: what Lori Drew did was beyond despicable. Mothers should be the reasonable ones; not hatching elaborate revenge schemes. Drew should be condemned and MySpace should participate in a public relations campaign to raise awareness of cyberbullying. Every effort should be made to punish those responsible. But I’d stop short of overreaching with an ambiguous piece of legislation. For reference, here’s the relevant portion of the bill:
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.’
The ambiguous nature of the language throws open the gates—Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) quipped that the law could target the “mean-spirited liberals” who harass him and his family. Theoretically, the law would prevent about 99% of political discourse—anyone feeling offended could claim “emotional distress.” This is a steep infringement of first amendment rights. We cannot hope to legislate how people think.