The rise of the Internet and other digital technologies has created new forums and methods by which individuals can be harassed and tormented. This type of bullying, dubbed “cyberbullying,” has been defined as using “Internet, cell phones, or other devices to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person.” John Palfrey of Harvard Law School described the problem as one that was on the rise, though he stated that he was unsure of whether the overall trend of bullying was on the rise, as cyberbullying could be taking the place of the more traditional, schoolyard bullying.

As noted previously in this blog, the Internet bullying problem gained national attention when the circumstances were publicized of Megan Meier’s suicide in 2006 following an Internet hoax perpetrated by Lori Drew, the mother of a former friend of Meier’s. Drew had created a fake identity, Josh Evans, on the MySpace website and proceeded to befriend and flirt with Meier before sending disparaging and abusive messages to Meier.

In response to the rise of Internet harassment and bullying, which was highlighted by Meier’s suicide, Representative Linda Sanchez (D-California), has proposed the “Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act,” which would make instances of cyberbullying a federal crime punishable by up to two years in prison. What specifically would be targeted by the legislation are “serious, repeated hostile communications made with the intent to harm.”

Though the intentions behind the legislation are admirable, there are issues that need consideration before this bill could pass, which was reflected in the views of members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee.

The major problem in this proposed bill is the potential constitutional conflict in regards to the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech, as the legislation is probably overbroad in what could be federally criminalized. In addition, the members of the subcommittee expressed concerns that some prosecutors might actually “harass the harasser.” Judi Westberg Warren, the president of Web Wise Kids, a nonprofit online safety group, also noted that there would have to be special care taken not to criminalize “youth-to-youth communications.”

In light of these issues, it might be some time before anything noteworthy comes out of this cyberbullying legislation; and in the meanwhile, we may have to rely on state cyberbullying laws and the agreement between social networking sites and the state attorney generals attempting to make these sites safe for children.

Christine You

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