Really dumb legislation — “cyberbullying prevention”

Knee-jerk reactions by the Congress to particular problems have given us some really bad laws over the years.  However, one of the worst examples of such reactive legislation to come down the pike in a long time, has to be something called the “Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act,” introduced earlier this year by US Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.).  Thankfully, the bill’s author has secured the support of less than a dozen co-sponsors, a fact that greatly diminishes the chances it will pass the House and eventually be signed into law.  However, other really bad legislative proposals have snuck through both houses of Congress with little obvious supprt, and been signed into law by various presidents wanting to prove themselves as “tough on crime” as the legislators who voted for the proposals.

This “cyberbullying” proposal is particularly hare-brained; but, as with many such proposals, it tugs at the heartstrings and cites for its justification a particularly unfortunate incident.  In this case, the tragedy giving rise to this attempt to “plug a loophole” in the already-vast federal criminal code, was the death three years ago of 13-year old Megan Meier, who was driven to suicide after being harassed on MySpace by a particularly cruel and vicious teenaged neighbor posing as a teenage boy.  As with situations that occassionally — and inevitably — arise, the despicable behavior by the tormenting neighbor of Megan Meier, did not fit within existing federal or state criminal laws and was deemed not prosecutable.  Into that perceived vacuum steps Rep. Sanchez, bent on expanding the federal criminal code to address what she apparently has concluded is a national problem of immense gravity and immediate concern that is not being met by state legislators and prosecutors.

Unfortunately, the legislative vehicle Rep. Sanchez has devised to address the federal problem she has identified, would work great mischief on federal criminal prosecutions and on the Constitution of the United States.

The principle defect in the “cyberbullying” legislation (HR 1966) lies in the fact that it purports to criminalize certain speech; specifically, speech transmitted by any “electronic means” that is intended to “cause substantial emotional distress to a person.”  Doing this would subject the person engaging in such “distressing” electronic communications to two years in the federal prison system.  The means of conveying such criminal communications includes e-mails, blogs, websites, telephones, and text messaging. 

This legislation represents an exercise in overcriminalization and poor draftsmanship not often seen, even in the Congress.  A term as broad and as vague as “intent  to .  .  .  cause substantial emotional distress to a person” invites constitutional challenge as being violative of the Fifth Amendment due process guarantee, as well as the First Amendment’s language protecting speech (including political and news media speech).   Sending an e-mail or a blog, or even posting a Twitter message that might be particularly insensitive or even downright mean about another person, including perhaps a candidate for office or an incumbent, could land you in jail if Rep. Sanchez’ bill were to become law.

We have more than enough laws, regulations and policies on the books already that attempt to constrain and define speech, including the unsavory kind that the First Amendment to the Constitution in fact protects.  We certainly do not not need yet another federal law doing so; especially one as broadly and poorly crafted as the “Cyberbullying Prevention Act.”

29 comments Add your comment

StJ

November 20th, 2009
8:42 am

Good post, Bob. Hopefully this, um “legislation” will never see the light of day.

jconservative

November 20th, 2009
9:31 am

“The means of conveying such criminal communications includes e-mails, blogs, websites, telephones, and text messaging.”

Turd Ferguson
“With a name like Sanchez I would expect nothing better. What a jackass.”

Glad you agree with Bob. If this passes the above comment could be a violation. Half the people who comment on the AJC blogs could end up in jail.

We really need to be careful on laws passed by both congress & the state legislatures.

The five greatest words in the Constitution – “Congress shall make no law…”.

Sam

November 20th, 2009
9:37 am

Well then I’d face the chair for hating on Sindy Sucker

Mrs. Norris

November 20th, 2009
9:59 am

Dear Bob, please accept my apologies for what I said about you on your Facebook. I didn’t mean it, truly. Apologies out of the way, I would like to say I still don’t like the hate-crime law. When you’re a victim of crime, you don’t care what the motivation is. One murder victim is as dead as the other. How about we just make murder, assault and things like that a crime. I think it’s bad policy to start qualifying crimes by motive.

Ward

November 20th, 2009
10:01 am

There’s one great line in the movie ‘Pirate Radio’, where Kenneth Branaugh’s character (a soulless bureaucrat railing on about rock music) says something to the effect that ‘the best part of part of being in government is that if you don’t like something, you just make it illegal.’

Constitution be damned.

Fang1944

November 20th, 2009
10:10 am

“With a name like Sanchez I would expect nothing better.”

Ah, yes, a little bigotry first thing in the morning.

neo-Carlinist

November 20th, 2009
10:14 am

Ward, the Pirate Radio quote cuts both ways; too often when politicians (ecouraged by lobbyists/special interests) “like” something they “make it legal”. politicians LIKE whittling away at the Constitution, but they like money and power more, so we’ll keep getting proposed legislation like this (usually named after some dead child) or legislation like the Patriot Act. my lord and savior George Carlin said it best; “…politicians will hide behind three things, the flag, the Bible and children…” these “sacred cows” are nothing but the means to the aforementioned ends mentioned above (power and money).

Joan

November 20th, 2009
10:38 am

Cynthia Tucker might be the first prosecuted under this for her hateful rants.

Chris Broe

November 20th, 2009
10:43 am

Bob Barr is…..RIGHT! The government trying to take over our right to call each other morons as part of a larger big-government takeover of pissing contests, tongue lashings, wife-nagging and mother-in-law backseat driving.

Everything we know we learned in kindergarden, right? Well the only thing I learned in kindergarden is that names will never hurt me. Why not a bill to ban sticks and stones? That would make more sense, wouldn’t it?

Well, I’m not standing for it. I call on all the trolls to choose sides, and lets start the bickering, the low blows, the name calling, the unfair reasoning, and the total lack of respect for common courtesy that bully-speak entails.

Who’s with me? LET’S DO IT!!!!!!!!

YellerSkeeters are PeterEaters!

November 20th, 2009
12:38 pm

Is the CDC going to be involved in this too?

dgroy

November 20th, 2009
1:16 pm

I’ll give Sanchez this……she’s smart enough to realize that if it doesn’t make it into law before the next election, it’ll be dead, dead, dead afterwards. Thank you again, Bob Barr, A Great American, for keeping the public informed of such nonsense as this……

Buzz

November 20th, 2009
1:16 pm

You incorrectly state the neighbor was a teen. The ‘tormenter’ was an adult neighbor. Should it be illegal for adults to pose as teens and mentally abuse teens. Probably.

“… by a particularly cruel and vicious TEENAGED neighbor posing as a teenage boy.”

MrLiberty

November 20th, 2009
1:34 pm

No JCONSERVATVE – those are the least respected words in the constitution.

The American People

November 20th, 2009
2:16 pm

The president has already admitted that the policy he seeks on Cap and Trade will cause our electricity bills to ’skyrocket.’ Sadly, those hit hardest will be those who are already struggling to make ends meet. Now that is really dumb, enjoy that Obama sheep.

adam

November 20th, 2009
2:35 pm

After Mr. Barr’s hateful Defense of Marriage Act law that he authored :he of all people shouldnt argue the merits of any law. You will go to your grave Bob as one of the biggests asses in history

Turd Ferguson

November 20th, 2009
2:47 pm

adam

November 20th, 2009
2:35 pm

Please stop the CYBER BULLYING!

ugaaccountant

November 20th, 2009
3:07 pm

Another 100% agreement Mr. Barr. This bill is clearly a violation of the 1st amendment.

If such a law were to be booked, nearly anything mean or negative you said via an “electronic” media could easily be spun into a violation of this law.

Chris Broe

November 20th, 2009
3:27 pm

Sanchez’s Cyberbullying Act: This brings up the issue of emoticons. What if there was a really mean looking face with horns that flipped the bird and made people sad and hurt? Shouldn’t THAT be illegal too?

And why stop there? What about cyber video clips of people lip-synching to recordings of Hitler’s 2nd innaugural address in 1936?

Or when Mussolini bad-mouthed the Vichy regime in France during WW2? that was barbaric. He even criticized their cuisine, man.

So I think passage of this cyberbullying law has so many poison pills that only a no good, dirty, yellow, lyin’ piece of confederate trash would support it.

Christopher (Fipher) D Osborn

November 20th, 2009
3:32 pm

On top of the obviouse concerns that several of the commentators on this very blogg might be sent to jail, there is also the fact that once they start making things we do online illegal they’ll have to come up with measures of enforcing the law. That will end up in a new branch of the FBI designed to figure out the true identities of cyberbullies. One thing always leads to another…

hryder

November 20th, 2009
5:27 pm

This is one of the morons supporting currently proposed health care/insurance legislation. Also, If one viewed resumes only, no references to gender, schools, age, race, or any other personal identifing characteristics, Sarah Palin is obviously more qualified to be President than the Big “O”. As Sanchez, many people are incapable or unwilling to actually reason logically and instead relie on emotion rather than true fact(s) to reach decisions that more and more people are realizing were totally wrong!!

TeapotTempest

November 20th, 2009
6:32 pm

Mr. ex-congressman Barr this is tempest in a teapot stuff you write about and not worth yours or your readers time. Surely there are more important issues than this drivel?

EatonWhite

November 20th, 2009
7:20 pm

There are several problems with Mr. Barr’s commentary. One, he is obviously not familiar with the state-of-the-art in online life research. Research across social science disciplines is clearly showing that, particularly for younger generations and more and more for older generations, virtual life is as real, and in some cases even more real, than real life. You may mock this, as I’m sure some of you will, but that doesn’t change the validity of the research, nor does it change the fact that we aren’t talking about introverted nerds living in their mother’s basements, we’re talking about an ever-increasing and significant portion of the US population. If virtual life is accepted as a form of reality, then things that occur within that reality have personal repercussions.

Second, Mr. Barr is making a strawman argument, no doubt learned in law school as being both fallacious and effective, to attack this sort of legislation. He claims, and several posters have concurred, that it will penalize something as innocuous as an insulting e-mail or text message. Clearly, this is not the intent of the law. Mr. Barr may be correct in suggesting that the scope of the law is too broad, and there no doubt could be some tightening of it, but that is no reason to dismiss the proposed legislation entirely.

Thirdly, pronouncements about the violation of the 1st amendment are disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. As we are all surely aware, laws limiting defamatory speech exist already. However, libel and slander laws do not cover all of the potential issues that arise on the internet. It is entirely possible to create legislation that punishes people who translate their abusive tendencies into virtual form.

In the case mentioned – in which Mr. Barr incorrectly claims a teenager was involved – the adult female responsible for said bullying intentionally and maliciously attempted to destroy this very young girl’s life. I’m sure she never intended for the girl to kill herself, but actions like hers SHOULD have consequences. Suggesting otherwise denies the emerging realities of today’s world. This legislation is necessary because the woman was acquitted because there was no clear law that applied given the virtual circumstances.

I wonder that we are so anxious to agree with Mr. Barr because of our terror of the “evil Government”. I was under the impression that the government was supposed to protect citizens from harm. If Lori Drew (the woman responsible for the emotional abuse) had carried out her actions in the real world, there would have been consequences. I’m not sure why Mr. Barr, or any of you, frankly, think that there shouldn’t be consequences when malicious abuse occurs over the internet.

FEAR

November 20th, 2009
7:45 pm

Can’t believe I’m agreeing with Bob Barr. But damn you are right about this one. Sanchez is just pandering!

The American People

November 20th, 2009
8:37 pm

Write an article about the SEIU 1000 members beating up Ken Hamidi for trying to exercising his right for free speech at their public meeting. Write about the hyocrisy of the fact that this is barely been a news story. Write about how Obama has as he says “worked with this organization all of his life” but they are keeping this very quiet. Write about the obvious fact that if a black man would have gone into a public meeting and had been beaten up by 4 white men it would be national news and their would be a public outcry on every news channel in this country. Thankyou.

Liz

November 21st, 2009
9:50 am

You might want to re-check the spelling in your commentary.

Mike Fairbanks

November 22nd, 2009
12:56 pm

Some of you folks are posting some incredibly immature comments. Are you adults? Name-calling is not only immature (yes, it’s actually childish behavior), but doesn’t work. You think by name-calling you will change someone’s opinion?

And, yes, Mr. Barr. You make a good point. I agree with you, but this internet bullying law pales in comparison to the Patriot Act, a law specifically designed to weaken the Bill of Rights.

[...] Republican Georgia congressman turned ACLU activist and 2008 Libertarian Presidential candidate, has denounced Rep. Linda Sánchez’s (D-CA) “Megan Meier Cyber Bullying Prevention Act” (H.R. 1966) in [...]

SchwinnSwan

November 24th, 2009
12:32 pm

Responding to EatonWhite’s comment regarding the 1st amendment and laws against libel and slander: Lori Drew – the individual deemed most responsible for the suicide of Megan Meier – was not criminally prosecuted for libel or defamation. After numerous prosecutors and legal theorists announced there was no criminal case against Drew, the public outrage and threats made by vigilantes convinced local prosecutors to look again and they wound up indicting Drew for a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1030, commonly known as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which criminalizes unauthorized access to computer systems.

This federal crime is poorly written and overbroad, intended to criminalize hacking into computer systems for illegal purposes such as theft, yet it captured Ms. Drew (and many others) in its net for the “crime” of setting up a MySpace account that did not use her real name, age, or gender. This was only a crime because it violated MySpace’s Terms of Service which nobody ever reads. Indeed, a study done by the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that a *majority* of MySpace accounts countained false information. No doubt if a study were to be conducted of the numerous online dating services, it would surely be noted that many described themselves as taller, slimmer, or in some way more flattering than the Terms of Services required.

The fact that many people had access to and used the MySpace account set up by Ms. Drew and since the prosecution was never able to determine who sent the final email to Meier that allegedly caused her to commit suicide, only led to the addition of conspiracy charges against Ms. Drew.

Why is the proposed Cyber Bullying Prevention act a threat to the 1st amendment? Because we already have laws against stalking and harassment which include electronic communications. H.R. 1966 criminalizes speech which is “not nice”. If you don’t defend freedom of speech for idiots, you’re not defending freedom of speech for yourself.

Bernalillo

December 16th, 2009
1:00 pm

Pretty poor synopsis of the crime or legislation. One wonders if there is a fiancial or ego based incentive for the sloppy information contained in this blog. Fear pays a lot of bills, including Mr Barrs, it would seem. I’m not overly enthusiastic about the bill either but it’s not due to igorance.