Just caught this LA Times editorial from a couple of days ago on the “Overreaction to Online Harassment.” The piece makes many of the same points that Berin Szoka and I stress in our PFF paper on “Cyberbullying Legislation: Why Education is Preferable to Regulation.” [Also, here’s a video of a debate on these issues that I took part in up on Cap Hill this summer.]
The Times editorial notes that, “Because of a past tragedy, lawmakers and prosecutors are becoming overzealous in combating noxious behavior on the Web.” Specifically, they are referring to the tragic case of Megan Meier, the teen who committed suicide after being harassed on MySpace. “Members of Congress often try to expand the powers of federal prosecutors and courts when state law doesn’t produce the results they seek, especially when confronted with cases as heart-wrenching as Meier’s,” the Times noted. For example, in may 2008, Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) introduced H.R. 1966 (originally H.R. 6123), the “Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act,” which would create a new federal felony to deal with this concern.
But creating a federal crime for something that is mostly peer-on-peer activity seems like overkill. Moreover, the Times notes, “the bill is so vaguely written” that it “would have a hard time withstanding a 1st Amendment challenge if it ever became law.” As you’ll see in our paper, Berin and I agree, but we also point out that cyberbullying is a very serious matter since evidence suggests the cyberbullying is on the rise and that it can have profoundly damaging consequences for children.
The Times would have been on stronger ground had they pointed out that fact as well the presence of a solid alternative to the Sánchez bill: Education and awareness-building efforts. In mid-May, the “School and Family Education about the Internet (SAFE Internet) Act” (S. 1047) was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and in the House by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL). The measure proposes an Internet safety education grant program that will be administered by the Department of Justice, in concurrence with the Department of Education, and the Department of Health & Human Services. That’s the more sensible — and constitutional — way to address cyberbullying concerns should federal lawmakers feel the need to act.
Finally, as the Times concludes in its editorial, “harassment is amply addressed by state criminal and civil laws.” Existing state statutes can be extended to cover the most problematic forms of online harassment, especially those that involved adult-on-child contact. We don’t need to make a federal matter, or crime, out of this.