Tag: cyberbullying

Monday Links

  • Regulatory privilege is not consistent with competitive markets–that’s why Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac need reform.
  • Thank goodness the U.S. Supreme Court found that education tax credits are not consistent with the fictitious notion of a “tax expenditure.”
  • President Obama’s budget plan is not consistent with either his own deficit commission’s plan or the Constitution.
  • The modern “Executive State” is not consistent with Article II of the Constitution.
  • Cyberbullying laws are not consistent with the First Amendment and our concept of free speech:


Cybertormenting Now Illegal in Louisiana

Louisiana has a new law on the books that outlaws “any electronic textual, visual, written, or oral communication with the malicious and willful intent to coerce, abuse, torment, or intimidate a person under the age of eighteen.”

This is a statute aimed at “cyberbullying,” the increasingly common use of text messages and social media as a vehicle for teenage taunting. The issue caught its first big headlines with the Lori Drew case. The case against the Missouri woman hailed into court in California for suicide-inducing internet harassment was a stretch of an existing federal statute that was ultimately thrown out. The government continues to contend that violating a website’s terms of service is a federal crime.

The federal cyberbullying statute proposed last year was a monstrosity. Felony time (up to two years) for a statute that will primarily be used against minors is excessive. There is no dedicated federal juvenile justice system, and this is not a good excuse to create one. Harvey Silverglate, Cato Adjunct Scholar and author of Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, testified at the hearings last fall.

The state laws aimed at cyberbullying are generally less onerous than the proposed federal one. The crime is a misdemeanor, and offenders under the age of seventeen are directed to the juvenile justice system. As Eugene Volokh points out, this law is still pretty bad:

Would publishing an online editorial — or a blog post — condemning an underage criminal for his crimes qualify as “malicious and willful intent to … abuse [or] torment”? Or would it not be “malicious” because it would be justified by righteous indignation (in which case I take it courts would have to decide what indignation is righteous and what is not)? Note that the law isn’t limited to messages sent only to the target, but includes speech published to the world at large as well.

Would sending a message castigating an ex-lover for cheating (assuming both the ex-lover and the sender are 17) qualify as “malicious and willful intent to … abuse [or] torment”? What if the message “speak[s] insultingly, harshly, and unjustly” (unjustly, that is, in the view of the judge), which is the dictionary definition of “abuse” that seems most relevant to speech?

So either the law is too broad, or it will be narrowed only by reading “malicious” as limited to speech that courts dislike — which raises the risk of impermissible content and viewpoint discrimination. And until the narrowing takes place (and maybe even after that), the law will be remarkably vague.

The exception for religious speech is also probably unconstitutional, because it treats nonreligious speech worse than religious speech. Cf. R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (holding that content-based distinctions are presumptively unconstitutional even when they operate within an unprotected category of speech).

Volokh has provided excellent coverage of the development of this law – from proposal, to adoption, and even the scrivener’s error that purports to protect free speech from cyberbullying charges via the state constitution’s right-to-bail provision. He coined the “cybertormenting” term as well, which has the rhetorical flair appropriate for a legislative overreach of this magnitude.

The Crusade against Sexting

As my colleague Tim Lynch pointed out in this post, the Third Circuit recently upheld an injunction against a prosecutor who threatened charges against teenagers who engaged in “sexting.” A conviction would have turned these minors into registered sex offenders for flirting via cellphone. Professor Eugene Volokh has more on the decision.

“Sexting” is sending an explicit photo of yourself to your significant other, and is an increasingly common occurrence with high school–aged teens. It’s dumb — those digits don’t ever go away, and they can come back to embarrass you — but it shouldn’t make you a sex offender.

Unfortunately, the laws don’t reflect this sensible distinction between poor teenage judgment (but I repeat myself) and intentional criminality. I don’t think this guy is a threat to society, but he’s a registered sex offender now.

Even staunch conservative Andy McCarthy expressed concern about the heavy mandatory minimums for possession of child pornography over at The Corner. First-time offenders can get 15-year minimum sentences, more than some of the mobsters that McCarthy prosecuted as an assistant U.S. attorney. As McCarthy puts it:

I think that’s nuts. And mind you, compared to the average person (and even the average prosecutor), I am Atilla the Hun: I would not have the slightest problem imposing capital punishment on the people who actually produce and “perform” in these depictions in which young children are sexually abused…

But the mandatory minimums have to be sensible — “Doing it for the children” is not a rationale for failing to distinguish the truly evil from the venial.

This is why Vermont legislators carved out an exemption for sexting so that teens would not be charged as child pornographers and registered as sex offenders. The video at the link shows Vermont State Senator John Campbell making the case for such a legal distinction:

If a 14- or 15-year old girl, let’s say, decides to send a photograph of her breast to her boyfriend who is 15, she has just then become a transmitter of child pornography and he is in possession of child pornography, and as such, then they are now on the lifetime registry, the sex offender registry. So take that a little bit further, and see what’s going to happen. We have a child who now, as a registered sex offender, if they are lucky to get into college, because they have to register when they get to college. If they’re fortunate enough to get there, and they want to, let’s say, go into a teaching profession. Do you think that they’re going to be hired as a teacher when they have been charged with possession of child pornography? The answer is probably not.

Internet safety advocate Donna Rice Hughes responds: “They don’t have to go into a sex offender registry. There is prosecutorial discretion currently in the child pornography laws.”

We should not create a criminal code broad enough to give prosecutors the ability to charge anybody with something, and then leave it to the prosecutors’ good sense to rein themselves in.

It would certainly be dangerous if the legislature could set a net large enough to catch all possible offenders and leave it to the courts to step inside and say who could be rightfully detained, and who should be set at large.”

— Chief Justice Morrison Waite, United States v. Reese, 92 U.S. 214, 221 (1875)

The problem goes beyond sexting. Last year the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing on “cyberbullying” legislation that would have criminalized using the internet to hurt someone else’s feelings. Setting aside the First Amendment issues with such a concept, this was a bill directed at making a federal felony out of teenagers’ rude conduct, in spite of the fact that there are no federal juvenile detention facilities to deal with this newly criminalized class of citizens.

Vermont’s sexting fix is a good start, but we have a long way to go before our laws again reflect traditional notions of criminal justice.

Federal Cyberbullying Law: ‘Worth a Try’?

On Wednesday the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing on the proposed cyberbullying legislation I mentioned in this post. Cato adjunct scholar Harvey Silverglate testified at the hearing, and his written testimony is available here.

Silverglate highlighted the pernicious potential of this law, which sits at the nexus of his two books. The Shadow University highlights how speech codes have impaired free expression on college campuses nationwide. Three Felonies a Day shows how federal criminal law has expanded to define various innocuous activities as federal felonies. Put the two together and a federal cyberbullying law is what you get. Silverglate’s recent podcast is available here, and he recently appeared at a Cato book forum.

The proposed cyberbullying law would impose a federal felony (two-year maximum sentence) upon anyone who uses electronic means to communicate a message intended to “coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person.” Under this law, rude emails, texts, or blog posts can all subject someone to hard time as long as a receiving party alleges “substantial emotional distress.”

The Committee expressed constitutional concerns over this proposal. Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) pointed out the potential chilling effect that this could have on lawful but provocative speech. Ranking Member Louie Gohmert (R-TX) highlighted the unintended consequences that this bill could have — though intended to protect teens from online bullying, Gohmert said it could prompt prosecution of political opponents who had posted offensive things about him on a blog. There is no limiting language in the statute to prevent such a result. Gohmert said that while this would be satisfying, it would also be unconstitutional and among the reasons not to endorse the legislation.

Other problems plague the proposed statute. A Congressional Research Service report highlights some of the constitutional issues, but the discussion at the hearing brought others to the fore. States that have passed their own cyberbullying sanctions have overwhelmingly done so with misdemeanor, not felony, charges. The felony problem is compounded by the fact that this is a statute intended to apply largely to the conduct of teenagers. A felony charge is both excessive and complicated by the fact that there are no long-term federal juvenile detention facilities — they are referred to state facilities instead.

University of Virginia law professor (and former university president) Robert O’Neil said, in spite of all those concerns, that the proposed law could be tweaked to avoid the feared demerits. In his written testimony, O’Neil notes the difference between offensive political speech and “true threats,” the latter not receiving constitutional protection. He proposes using Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED), a traditional state tort claim, as the legal basis for justifying the proposed law. This is an odd foundation for a federal criminal law — no state defines IIED as a crime, and many states require a showing of physical harm for a plaintiff to recover. When Rep. Gohmert pressed him on this, O’Neil said that in spite of the lack of legal foundation for a federal crime based on IIED, it was “worth a try.”

No thanks. Let’s not try. Let’s keep our liberties intact and not do further damage to the law.

Cyberbullying Bill on the March

Federal prosecutors moved to criminalize internet harassment last year by prosecuting Lori Drew. Lori Drew, as you may recall, is a Missouri woman who created a fictional MySpace profile named “Josh” and started an online relationship with Megan Meier, a teenage girl who may have spread gossip about Drew’s daughter at the local high school. After “Josh” broke up with her, Megan Meier killed herself.

While this is despicable conduct, Missouri prosecutors found that Drew had broken no criminal statute and could not be prosecuted.

Enter Thomas O’Brien, U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California. O’Brien filed charges against Drew based on alleged violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). O’Brien alleged that by violating MySpace’s policy requiring factual information in the user profile and affirming the click-to-agree contract, Lori Drew had committed a crime akin to hacking or unauthorized access of computer data. Because of MySpace’s ties to the Central District of California, Lori Drew was haled into court halfway across the country.

Though the jury convicted Drew and reduced the felony charges to misdemeanors, District Judge George Wu threw out the conviction because the statute would allow the prosecution of nearly anyone on the internet. The decision is available here. The government has since filed a notice of appeal. Orin Kerr notes that the appeal may face additional hurdles – the line of cases that the government used to interpret the statute so broadly has been overturned by the Ninth Circuit.

Several members of Congress have since jumped on the Named Victim Act bandwagon, sponsoring the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act. The Act goes far beyond the issue of unauthorized access, criminalizing any rude speech delivered via the internet, cell phone, or text message:

‘(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 user’s 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 email, instant messaging, blogs, websites, telephones, and text messages.’.

The scope of this law is breathtaking. Had a rough breakup with your significant other? Engaged in a flame war on a website’s comment section? We’ve got a law against that, you know.

The House Judiciary Committee will be holding a hearing on this law tomorrow. Cato Adjunct Scholar Harvey Silverglate, author of Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, will be testifying. Silverglate will also be at a book forum on Thursday at Cato, which can be watched live here.