Josh Trevino thinks that the entire blogosphere should take a highly wary look at HR 1996, the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, named after a teen who committed suicide after a schoolmate’s mother engineered a devastating psychological attack on her via a social-networking site. In reaction to the case, Linda Sanchez (D-CA) and Kenny Hulshof (R-MO) introduced the bill last year (Hulshof is no longer in Congress), and it has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration. Trevino thinks the bill uses broad language that could easily trap political dissent, in clause Sec 881 (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.
Trevino has a point here. These terms are vague and easily manipulated for all sorts of purposes. If a blogger posted repeated criticisms of Carrie Prejean and published her modeling photos, wouldn’t that qualify, at least in theory? What about critics of Meghan McCain who caddishly focus on her appearance? Isn’t that designed to “cause substantial emotional distress”? Would bloggers doing either get prosecuted under HR 1996?
Why exactly is Congress taking up this issue anyway? The Megan Meier case was tragic, of course, and the woman who destroyed her deserves nothing but scorn, vituperation, and shunning. However, we aren’t exactly experiencing a wave of cyberbullying deaths, and it seems that laws already in existence for fraud, slander, libel, and harassment should apply.
When in doubt, Congress should re-read the First Amendment, which forbids Congress from passing laws restricting the right of free speech. They should also note that the Constitution is absolutely silent on any right to be free from “distress”, nor does it set the government as an arbiter on what constitutes “substantial emotional distress” or “hostile behavior” that doesn’t break the usual laws on assault, battery, trespass, and fraud. We do not need the Nanny State to treat us like children, and if we allow them to fill that role, we should not be surprised when those who hold power use it as a weapon against those who challenge them.