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Cyberbullying Law Coming Soon? MySpace Suicide Case Leads to Legislation

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By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on May 13, 2009 4:04 PM

As the now-infamous MySpace suicide case winds to a close, it looks like Congress may at the same time be taking a shot at legislation aimed squarely at cyberbullying. The law introduced last month, entitled the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act after the victim in the MySpace case, would become the tool of choice for prosecutors to pursue cyberbullies. This became pointedly necessary, at least politically and in the court of public opinion, after prosecutors had to strain to find a way to go after Lori Drew in the Megan Meier case, eventually doing so using an anti-hacking law in a novel fashion.

CNN's SciTechBlog yesterday pointed out valid concerns regarding the broad language of the bill, particularly as it pertains to bloggers and those who enjoy partaking in "flame wars" on message boards. Specifically, the law makes it a crime punishable by fine or up to 2 years of prison time to communicate online "with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person." Huh...not confessing to anything here, but that language alone is pretty worrying (as anyone who may be prone to gloat and/or taunt electronically over real or fantasy sports victories might agree).

However, the law does go on to limit its application to communications via "electronic means", which means everything from email, to text messaging, blogs, phones, etc. Further, the situation has to involve "severe, repeated, and hostile behavior" but those terms are entirely undefined in the bill.

Still, the bottom line is that there are significant and potentially valid concerns regarding the potential reach of this law. Despite Congresswoman Linda Sanchez's assurance that "Congress has no interest in censoring speech and it will not do so if it passes this bill", courts often have a dim view of laws that "chill" free speech via their broadly-written language. A prime example of this would be laws attempting to restrict access by minors to online pornography, which have not fared well in courts in the face of First Amendment challenges. Sometimes a good goal is not enough to make a good law.

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