Constitutional Law

I Dare You to Come Online and Say That

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At a House hearing yesterday, Berin Szoka and Adam Thierer of the Progress and Freedom Foundation laid out the problems with the absurdly broad Megan Meier Cyber Bullying Prevention Act. Under the bill, introduced by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), anyone convicted of "using electronic means to support severe, repeated and hostile behavior…with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass or cause substantial emotional distress to a person" would be subject to a prison sentence of up to two years. Although Sanchez has said her motivation is protecting children from harassment by adults, Szoka and Thierer note, her bill also applies to interactions between adults and between minors. Furthermore, it arbitrarily treats online behavior more severely than its offline equivalent:

Her legislation sets up a starkly different standard for online bullying as compared to offline bullying. If the statements made in the Lori Drew case [the MySpace hoax that seems to have precipitated the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier] were made on a playground, the perpetrator might face a stern conversation with the principal and possibly suspension….But if the same comment were sent via email or posted on a social networking site, such a bully would be subject to potential federal prosecution under Rep. Sanchez's bill. Consequently, that individual would fave the prospect of a felony sentence of two years' incarceration in a federal prison, even though this has traditionally not been the approach applied to real-world bullying.

Relying heavily on the analysis of UCLA law professor (and Reason contributor) Eugene Volokh, Szoka and Thierer detail the First Amendment problems raised by Sanchez's bill, which could be read to criminalize a wide range of constitutionally protected speech, including criticism of public officials, customer complaints, and angry exchanges with ex-lovers:

Attempting to distinguish between actual harassment and what may be nothing more than routine online "flaming" (i.e., heated online exchanges) is no easy task. In particular, the Sanchez bill offers no clear standard by which judges and juries should distinguish between unprotected "coercion" (say, e-mail harassment of an ex-boyfriend) and "coercion" in an effort to get someone to change a political or philosophical position (say, repeated and hostile blog postings).

Because the reach of the bill is unclear, Szoka and Thierer note, it also seems to violate the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause, which requires that people have clear guidelines for staying within the law. Although they concede that "peer-on-peer cyberbullying is a more significant online safety concern than child predation" (the threat of which, they show, has been greatly exaggerated), they advocate education rather than criminalization.

Szoka and Thierer's testimony here (PDF). More on Sanchez's bill here and here. More on the Megan Meier/Lori Drew case here.

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  1. Shut ther fuck up, Lonewacko.

  2. Leave a comment on that?
    And cause emotional distress?
    You must be joking.

  3. A BAN ON TROLLING? WHAT? VIKING MINION! CALL OUT THE LAWYERS! THIS MUST BE STOPPED!

  4. The left knows how effective the net is for building a grassroots opposition. They want to nip any such movement in the bud.

  5. It also violates freedom of speech laws.
    What exactly could be classified as “intimidation” over the internet?
    Or “emotional distress”?

    Trolling on a message board for a different political faction?

    For the record, I think trolls and trolling are highly underrated.

  6. I guess it’s back to threatening phone calls for me.

  7. If I were as ugly as Linda Sanchez, I’d kill myself.

    1. If I were as fat as Linda Sanchez, I wouldn’t need to kill myself. Cheese enchiladas and fried snickers bars are doing a fine job.

  8. Read me, Dr. Memory?

  9. Goddamn you US Congress! First you go and ruin marijuana for the entire motherfucking world and now got this??!!

  10. For the record, I think trolls and trolling are highly underrated.

    COME SIT IN THE URKOBOLD’S LAP AND TELL HIM MORE ABOUT YOUR LUST FOR TROLLS.

  11. How can there possibly be anything wrong with this bill? It’s named after a dead white girl, after all. To oppose it is to dishonor her memory!

  12. Why is this site being so unfriendly to me? I don’t like how HnR’s making me feel.

    1. Just point on the doll where HnR touched you.

  13. Comment counts on the main blog page don’t update without a Shift-Reload.

  14. I am getting only the first story and the headline for the second. Is it me or is there a bug in the new layout?

    1. Same here. Methinks the server squirrel has chewed the new software.

  15. Under the bill, introduced by Rep. Linda “Dirty” Sanchez (D-Calif.), anyone convicted…

    FIFY

  16. Fucking serious?

    I guess this will put 4chan, Fark, and damn near every other forum out of business. Because … we have to protect the children.

    1. this bitch should an hero

  17. Sometimes we insist on “protecting” children who are now 45 and who insist upon not being protected.

    1. I knew justice was blind. I didn’t know she was so fucking cheap and time sensitive.

  18. I’m seeing the same problem as brotherben (uh, with the website, not necessarily the court case).

    So this is the new HnR? 1-1/2 articles. I doubt that will slow the commenting much. Don’t worry, Reasonoids, we’ll take it from here.

    Also, there is apparently some running joke about the ALT text, but now I’ll never get to the bottom of it.

  19. Libertymike,

    If you don’t like the state’s monopoly on justice, move to Somalia. Though you’d have to deal with even more “n**** communists” there.

  20. Of course this would also make online B-G porn essentially illegal, as many men find freakishly large membra vira to be intimidating.

  21. Shouldn’t the punishment for this same crime “IRL” tougher? Arguable, parents are not always around their kids IRL while internet activity is usually done with parental permission and equipment.

  22. Web site technical problems: webmaster@reason.com

  23. Shit. I bitched about the tiered format to the webmaster earlier. And then I used it myself. See what happens?! See?! Are we all in agreement to not “reply to this?”

    1. Yeah, count me in.

      1. I can go along with that.

        1. Wait. I changed my mind.

          1. fwiw, I think it comes from jealousy of the layout at feministing.

            1. I feel more empowered with the reply to this… but I feel less empowered without the preview button.

              1. I want my reply to show up at the bottom of the page.

                1. Fag

                  1. I don’t think I like the new style. Someone should have called me first for my opinion.

                    1. how in the hell are you supposed to tell which replies are new? you have to scroll through whole goddamn page and look at each thread instead of just going to the bottom

  24. Gee whatever happened to the right not to be offended?

  25. using electronic means to support severe, repeated and hostile behavior…with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass or cause substantial emotional distress to a person

    Science, if this passed we will all be going to jail.

    Shut the fuck up Lonewacko. Shut the fuck up, Dick Hoste.

    Proposed felonies both.

  26. Yo, isn’t she using electronic means to support severe, repeated and hostile behavior…with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass or cause substantial emotional distress to cyber-bullies?

    Whassup wit’ de double-standard, yo?

  27. So how does this law work if there is no intent to harass (etc.), but it just kind of ends up that way? Or if there is intent, but it fails miserably?

  28. That’s what always happens to me.

    Ya big palooka.

  29. I think I’m offended…

  30. From the first link:

    (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.’

    There are googleplexes of us. Surrender.

  31. What is the problem? Do you really need the ‘freedom’ to intimidate and harass others? We have the first ammendment and free speech in America, but freedom of speech doesn’t mean you can say anything. You don’t have the freedom to say things that are politically incorrect. If you think things that are offensive, then keep your mouth shut. This law only applies to bullying.

  32. The Congress would be a better place without Linda Sanchez in it.

  33. Huh. Sounds like the message I received on facebook this morning from an angry (ex?)friend might qualify for prosecution.

  34. Linda Sanchez is a diseased cunt.

    Hey you stupid cunt, ever heard of the 1st Amendment?

  35. The Congress would be a better place without Linda Sanchez in it.

    So would the world.

    God, you listening?

  36. Mary, I hope you are being sarcastic. Otherwise you are a cunt.

  37. “anyone convicted of “using electronic means to support severe, repeated and hostile behavior…with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass or cause substantial emotional distress to a person” would be subject to a prison sentence of up to two years.”

    Would the spam email from the White House on ObumaCare that gives me heartburn fall under this provision, and then can we chuck B.O. in the clink for two?

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