FREE SPEECH -- A California Congresswoman's proposed legislation demanding up to two years in prison for
electronic speech meant to coerce, intimidate, harass or cause
substantial emotional distress to a person was met with little
enthusiasm by a House subcommittee last Wednesday, reports David Kravits for Wired magazine.
Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Cerritos) lobbied fellow lawmakers of a
House Judiciary subcommittee to back her proposed legislation dubbed
the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act. In its first
congressional hearing, Sanchez said the proposal was designed to target
the cyberbullying that led to the 2006 suicide of the 13-year-old Meier
Bullying has gone electronic, Sanchez testified before the Subcommitttee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. This literally means kids can be bullies at any hour of the day or the night, or even in the victims own home.
From the outset of the 90-minute hearing, however, committee members
from the left and the right said they thought the measure was an
unconstitutional breach of free speech. We need to be extremely
careful before heading down this path, Bobby Scott, a Democrat from
Virginia and the committees chairman, said during the hearings
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said the legislation appears to be
another chapter of over-criminalization. He quipped, however, that the
law could target the mean-spirited liberals in the blogosphere that
are attacking himself and his family regularly. About 30 minutes later, Gohmert said that not all prosecutors would
exercise good judgment, that they might harass the harasser.
A good prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich, he said.
Here is a snippet of H.R. 1966:
(a) 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.
(b) As used in this section
(1) the term communication means the electronic transmission,
between or among points specified by the user, of information of the
users choosing, without change in the form or content of the
information as sent and received; and
(2) the term electronic means means any equipment dependent on
electrical power to access an information service, including e-mail,
instant messaging, blogs, websites, telephones and text messages.
The House committee took no action on the legislation, and said it would accept written public comments for another week.
A handful of expert witnesses also testified before the committee. Their views ranged from the legislation being needed to it being unconstitutionally vague.