May 09, 2009

Proposed New Federal Law Says: "Upset Me - Go to Prison!"

Greetings. I sometimes speak and write about contentious and controversial topics. I like to think that most of the time I have the angels on my side, but certainly there are some people who disagree with me on certain issues, and who don't hesitate about telling me so -- sometimes loudly, repeatedly, and even impolitely.

I have a pretty thick skin, but golly, [sniff], I do have feelings. Some of those messages can be pretty, well, distressing emotionally, ya' know?

But if a new proposal in Congress becomes law, I might be able to send those disagreeing folks to federal prison! Now that's entertainment!

This new power to incarcerate would come courtesy of H.R. 1966, proposed by California Democrat Linda Sanchez and around a dozen co-sponsors, who obviously feel that the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution has the elastic properties of Silly Putty.

The bill -- now in the House Judiciary Committee -- says, "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."

What's going on of course is that this legislation is being framed as an attack on "cyberbullying" -- the actual bill is called the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, named for the 13-year-old who tragically committed suicide last year after receiving upsetting MySpace messages.

The legislation, by the way, doesn't limit its coverage to Internet messages -- it would also apparently sweep in text messages, phone calls, Web sites, radio and television programs and commentaries ... and so on.

This is yet another example of seemingly well-intentioned legislation that would create a firestorm of presumably unintentional collateral damage to constitutionally protected free speech.

You can make your own list of problematic aspects, but here's a few to get started. Determining "intent" as specified by the legislation is a can of worms in and of itself. When a collection agency repeatedly calls a debtor and harasses them about payments, is their intent to cause them severe emotional distress to get them to pay up?

When someone sets up a Web site critical of a company's officers, what is the intent? Is the intent to get better service, cause severe emotional distress, or both? Would every hit on that Web site count as "repeated" behavior?

Clearly such a law would be a cash cow for psychologists. As expert witnesses on both sides at the associated trials, they'd be needed to argue about the true "intent" of defendants.

Well, you get the idea. Due to its very broad scope and impact on what we normally consider to be free speech, this legislation, if approved by Congress, faces a litigation path longer than the route from Munchkinland to the Wizard of Oz, and with a seemingly rather low probability of successfully reaching the Emerald City.

Presumably the sponsors of this legislation are fully aware of this, and naturally I wouldn't want to suggest that perhaps what's really going on with this proposal is political grandstanding.

But if the legislation ever does become law and passes judicial muster, my critics had better watch their steps. You wouldn't want to hurt my feelings and end up in the slammer, would you?


Posted by Lauren at May 9, 2009 09:09 AM | Permalink
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