OPINION: A bill to outlaw internet bullies

May 7, 2009
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John Bombast-Blabbershnort is a fascist whose momma needs liposuction so her combat boots will fit.

The above statement certainly could cause John "substantial emotional distress" if it he saw it in a blog, Twitter post, text message or e-mail. It's the kind of talk that's all-too-common on the cyberspace playground of life. The statement fits in the category of "cyberbullying," a new congressional term and a terrible thing. People should not digitally bully one another. It just isn't nice. It can even cause harm. In at least one extreme case, cyberbullying may have led a girl to kill herself.

And for the record, The Gazette's editorial board officially opposes cyberbullying and encourages people to avoid it. Just be nice, for goodness sakes.

Some members of Congress find themselves so opposed to cyberbullying they believe there oughta be a law. So they've crafted one. Seriously.

H.R. 1966, sponsored by California Democrat Linda Sanchez and 14 co-sponsors, would make it a crime to electronically communicate speech intended to "coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress." Offenders could face up to two years in prison. It's called the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, after a 13-year-old who killed herself after the parent of an acquaintance interjected herself into a feud and sent Meier disturbing messages.

Sure, this makes sense. Let's get federal agents in the business of regulating our instant messages, e-mails, blog posts, and all those silly messages we write on the walls of social networking sites. We can create an agency that is to e-mail what the IRS is to money. To make the bill sound important, let's exploit a bizarre and isolated tragedy.

Let's have federal authorities enforce a respectful and polite demeanor in all forms of modern communication. Let's convict people and imprison them for committing electronic insult, even if they're guilty of mere coercion.

Great idea.

But wait, isn't there already a federal law that regulates private communication in the United States? Oh, yes, it's the First Amendment. It says: "Congress (that includes Sanchez and her friends) shall make no law (that would include H.R. 1966, a proposed law)... abridging (which means "reducing," "curtailing," or "diminishing") the freedom of speech (which would include virtual notes we write to one another using the Internet)."

It's hard to imagine how we've come this far. Today, we are a country in which 15 members of Congress genuinely believe that a federal law should force people to treat each other with decency, respect and kindness.

Again, improving cyberspace manners seems like a laudable goal. But it shouldn't be forced by law. Besides, kind communication isn't always appropriate. There's a time to hand a person his head, figuratively speaking. If some homophobe leaves a hateful message on your FaceBook wall, coerce him into acting with kindness. If that doesn't work, tell him to get lost - which may cause him substantial emotional distress.

The bill stands no chance, at least for now. But the fact it was written, introduced, and sponsored means the entire concept of a country shaped by individuals, free from overregulation by government, has become a joke to at least 15 members of Congress. It means 15 federal lawmakers have little use for freedom of speech. If they ever succeed at telling us how to write e-mails and blog posts, there will be nothing left of individual freedom. If we lose free speech, we lose all other rights.

This article, like all Gazette editorials, will post on the Internet. If H.R. 1966 were a law today, we might not be able to say what we're about to, because it could cause a few members of Congress too much "emotional distress." So here goes, while it's still allowed: Rep. Sanchez, your bill is so phenomenally ignorant that it comes across as a gag. But it's come to our attention you're serious. It seems you've never familiarized yourself with the First Amendment. So walk to Library of Congress, request the Bill of Rights, and read the first 22 words. Of those 22, the last three are "freedom of speech."

Learn it, love it, and live it. Then withdraw this ridiculous, un-American bill. Respectfully, with no emotional distress intended.


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