By Berin Szoka & Adam Thierer
We’ve just released a new PFF white paper (PDF) entitled, “Cyberbullying Legislation: Why Education is Preferable to Regulation.” In this 24-page study we note that, compared to previous fears about online predation, which have been greatly overblown, concerns about cyberbullying are more well-founded. Evidence suggests the cyberbullying is on the rise and that it can have profoundly damaging consequences for children.
Unsurprisingly, in the wake of a handful of high-profile cyberbullying incidents that resulted in teen/tween suicides, some state lawmakers began floating legislation to address the issue. More recently, two very different federal approaches have been proposed. One approach is focused on the creation of a new federal crime to punish cyberbullying, which would include fines and jail time for violators. In April 2008, Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) introduced H.R. 1966 (originally H.R. 6123), the “Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act,” a bill that would create a new federal felony:
“Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce 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, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”
The other legislative approach is education-based and would create an Internet safety education grant program to address the issue in schools and communities. 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. These agencies will also work in consultation with education, Internet safety, and other relevant experts to administer a five-year grant program, under which each grant will be awarded for a two-year period.
In our paper, we argue that criminalizing what is mostly kid-on-kid behavior—and especially creating a new federal felony, as the Sánchez bill proposes—will not likely solve the age-old problem of kids mistreating each other. Moreover, this approach could raise thorny free speech and due process issues related to how the law defines harassing or intimidating speech. To the extent criminal sanctions are pursued as a solution, it may be preferable to allow state experimentation with varying models.
By contrast, education and awareness-based approaches have a chance of effectively reducing truly harmful behavior, especially over the long-haul. Such approaches would have the added benefit of avoiding constitutional pitfalls and subsequent court challenges. Thus, if lawmakers feel the need to address cyberbullying concerns at this time, it is clear that regulation is, at best, premature and that education is the better approach.
[In a follow-up post, we will address why the criminalization approach to addressing cyberbullying raises free speech concerns and other constitutional issues.]