For those of you who haven’t heard yet, a federal law has been proposed that defines “cyberbullying” and specifies penalties (in the form of fines and up to two years imprisonment) for violators. The bill is formally called the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act (HR 6123), and was introduced jointly by Representatives from Missouri and California. We support the creation of well-informed and thought-out laws that are part of a comprehensive plan to address cyberbullying, and we applaud the fact that politicians are increasingly recognizing and formally responding to the problem of online aggression. However, this specific law is just not going to work. The text of the bill reads:
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. (§ 881)
The bill’s wording seems too broad, and its overbreadth makes me believe that it would be found unconstitutional. IANAL, but intent to cause “substantial emotional distress” through “severe” and “hostile” electronic behaviors will be difficult to prove, especially when it is online. I think courts would (and do) have an easier time identifying and agreeing upon the same behavior when demonstrated offline, in the real world.
On a final note, I like the fact that “cyberbullying” is spelled as one word in the bill.