from an expert in the field:
Congresswoman Linda T. Sánchez (D) represents the 39th
Congressional District of California.
THREE YEARS AGO, a 13-year-old girl named Megan quietly suffered the
abuse of a bully—in disguise as a 15-year-old boy—who tormented her,
emotionally harassed her and then told her, “The world would be better off
without you.” She committed suicide. After her death, the true identity of
Megan’s perpetrator finally came to light. It was Lori Drew, the mother of
one of Megan’s peers, who lived just a few houses away.
Someone who harasses and harms a child in person can be arrested, charged, tried and sentenced. So what happens to someone like Drew, who engaged in these same behaviors online?
A federal judge threw out Drew’s conviction. That day, in my opinion, a criminal walked out
of the courtroom with a smile. Megan’s family shook their heads. The attorneys threw their hands
in the air. There was no law they could suitably charge her with.
This is just one example of why we need new laws to address new crimes such as cyberbullying. Words and phrases that didn’t exist just a couple years ago—“sexting,” “textual harassment,”
“cyberbullying”—describe the new ways people use technology to hurt, harass and humiliate.
When these behaviors become serious, repeated and hostile, society can no longer ignore them.
Because of the anonymity and deception the Internet allows, this form of bullying is particularly dangerous. Cyberbullying can have serious consequences and inflict lasting wounds upon
young people. Studies have found that bullying can negatively affect the academic performance,
self-esteem, and mental and physical health of children, and even lead to suicide or homicide.
Prohibiting cyberbullying is a sensible addition to comprehensive efforts to keep children safe.
While some states already have laws against cyberbullying, there is no federal statute against
it—yet. This is why I have introduced the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act. This bill
would give prosecutors the ability to punish those who use electronic means to engage in bullying.
Let me be clear: This bill would not unreasonably limit free speech. It does not target political
debate, blogs or Internet commentary. It would, however, give judges and juries a tool to recognize
and punish extreme behavior. No matter if it takes place in person or online, hostile intention to
harm is not acceptable. C
from an expert in the field:
“CYBERBULLYING,” LIKE “bullying,” is too vague a term to be helpful in
legal discussions. For example, some sorts of ordinary bullying—physical
attacks—are already criminal. Likewise, some sorts of cyberbullying, such as
threats of violence, are already criminal; we don’t need new laws to deal with
it. Other sorts, such as libel, can be grounds for a civil lawsuit.
But when cyberbullying comes to mean bad behavior generally—for
instance, personal insults posted on someone’s Web page—the best response is the same as it is to
meanness outside cyberspace: teaching children to ignore the rudeness as best they can. In some
situations, schools can properly discipline students for cruel actions that disrupt the school envi-
ronment, even if the actions themselves take place outside school. But that should be the limit;
dealing with merely nasty behavior is no job for the police or for the courts.
And many proposed cures for cyberbullying are worse than the disease. One bill, House
Resolution 1966, introduced by Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-California, would ban “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.” That’s a remarkably
broad prohibition, which would apply not just to schoolchildren but also to speech about adults.
It would, for instance, potentially criminalize harsh online criticism of political figures, publications on newspaper Web sites and the like. The First Amendment forbids such bans on speech.
And even “hostile, distressing” speech is constitutionally protected. (“Intimidating” or “coercive”
speech, in the sense of threats, is unprotected, but it’s already illegal.)
It’s possible that some proposals might be both narrow enough and clear enough to be constitutional and at the same time cover speech that isn’t already illegal. For instance, adults impersonating children online in order to communicate with other children would probably qualify. That’s
constitutionally unprotected speech, because it involves knowingly false statements of fact, but it
probably isn’t already covered by existing fraud laws.
So when you hear people proposing a ban on cyberbullying, ask them precisely what it is
they’re trying to ban. Then ask yourself: Is the proposal so broad that it would outlaw even constitutionally protected speech? And if it is narrow, does it cover behavior that is already illegal? C
Eugene Volokh is an author, professor of law at the UCLA School of
Law and an academic affiliate with the law firm of Mayer Brown LLP.
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