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Internet Flaming May Become Illegal

Flamers beware: Representative Linda Sanchez (D) has re-introduced a bill to Congress that--if approved--could make internet flaming and harassment a felony. Called the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, Sanchez created and named the bill after the teenager who killed herself in 2007 over "bullying" comments made by a Missouri woman on MySpace. Sanchez said that the bill is not out to stifle or censor free speech, but to determine "cyberbullyism" in court.

"Congress has no interest in censoring speech and it will not do so if it passes this bill," she said. "Put simply, this legislation would be used as a tool for a judge and jury to determine whether there is significant evidence to prove that a person 'cyberbullied' another. That is: did they have the required intent, did they use electronic means of communication, and was the communication severe, hostile, and repeated. So--bloggers, emailers, texters, spiteful exes, and those who have blogged against this bill have no fear--your words are still protected under the same American values."

Specifically, the proposed bill--H.R. 1966 filed April 2--will make it a felony if electronic messages found in forums, comment systems (cough), etc have the "intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person." Those found guilty will face a possible fine, a jail sentence of up to two years, or both the fine and jail time. Currently Sanches is shopping around with other politicians to get everyone familiar with its intent. So far, she's signed on fourteen other members of Congress while continuing to rally more support.

Eugene Volokh, the Gary T. Schwartz Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, doesn't think the bill will stand up in court. "The law, if enacted, would clearly be facially overbroad (and probably unconstitutionally vague), and would thus be struck down on its face under the First Amendment." Other critics have made their views known, with one blogger from the National Review Online's Media Blog calling the proposed bill the "Censorship Act of 2009." Justin Patchin, assistant professor of criminal justice, Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, wrote on Cyberbullying.us that he's not convinced that a state or federal law, which criminalizes cyberbullying, is the best approach.

"The vast majority of all cyberbullying can be effectively handled informally--by parents, educators, and other community members," he wrote in his blog. "In the rare event that a cyberbullying incident rises to a level warranting criminal intervention, we already have existing laws which can be utilized (stalking, criminal harassment, felonious assault, etc.)."

Sanchez defends the bill by providing a scenario: if you were walking down the street and saw someone harassing a child, would you just walk by and look the other way? If that person were telling the child the world would be better off if they just killed themselves, would you ignore it? Sanchez says that is exactly what is happening on the Internet, only that the harassment is more painful and more abusive because of the "faceless anonymity" the Internet offers.

Unfortunately, many have pointed out that the bill suffers from many flaws, saying that although Sanchez is out to protect the children, the bill is not limited to speech aimed at a child, nor is it limited to anonymous speech. Volokh even challenges Sanchez in a recent blog, wanting to see a statement made from at least one of the alleged variety of experts and law professors who helped Sanchez shape the bill.

"I would like to see even one statement from one such expert that would explain how this law is constitutional," his blog reads. "But Sanchez’s defense of the law as written troubles me even more. If Sanchez did want to limit the law to speech aimed at children, or focus only on individualized communications and not blog posts or other speech aimed at the public at large, or exclude public figures or matters of public concern, she could easily amend the bill."

While Sanchez's intentions are admirable, it may be that Congress rejects the bill again, requiring more definition as to how cyberbullying will be approached in court. There's no question that flaming needs to be addressed in some fashion, but not to the point where the bill interferes with Freedom of speech.