A bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last month, the "Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act," is causing quite a stir among free speech advocates. The story of Megan Meier—a teenager who killed herself after allegedly suffering "cyberbullying" by neighborhood mother Lori Drew, who reportedly impersonated a teenage boy online—is very sad. Unfortunately, the bill named after her would cause very disturbing damage to freedom of speech online.
Even Sanchez’s attempt to define the term "cyberbullying" poses problems, said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.
"The bill defines it as ‘using electronic means to support severe, repeated and hostile behavior,’ but what does ‘severe, hostile and repeated behavior’ mean?" he asked.
"I’ve written articles opposing the bill that have appeared online. That’s electronic and—because I’ve written a few of them—repeated. I was also severe and hostile in my criticisms. Under her law, I can now go to jail."
The whole story is worth a read, as is the bill itself.
Of course, Professor Volokh is not the only person on the Internet who engages in "severe, repeated, and hostile" opposition to various policies and the people who enforce them. At FIRE, that’s actually the main function of our job. FIRE has always been dedicated to the public exposure of abuses of student and faculty rights on the (demonstrably correct) belief that colleges and universities often cannot defend in public what they do in private. We believe this is preferable to lawsuit after expensive lawsuit over issues that can more quickly and efficiently be settled through public debate. However, for our advocacy strategy to work, we have to make severe, repeated, and (arguably) hostile condemnations of denials of Americans’ fundamental rights and dignities, which could well cause "substantial emotional distress" to those who are writing and enforcing these policies. Under the cyberbullying act as currently constituted, doing my job could potentially make me a criminal many times over, along with most of my colleagues. The same, of course, goes for the employees of the thousands of other advocacy groups in the U.S. For obvious reasons, then, FIRE has major concerns about this bill. We’ll keep Torch readers informed as this story unfolds.