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A SWAT for trying to outlaw what’s already illegal

Submitted by on Thursday, 1 October 2009 No Comment

Bullying is mean-spirited, malicious and wrong. It’s also immoral, but it’s not illegal. Nor should it be.

Threatening someone is mean-spirit, malicious and wrong. It is illegal, as well it should be.

So why is it that when we attach “cyber” to an action that wouldn’t be illegal if done face to face that there’s a sudden rush to make it a crime just because it happened online?

In the case of U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, it’s tempting to say the rush is an effort to make political hay out of a tragic case that drew national attention. Or it could be yet another attempt by someone who doesn’t understand online to regulate that modern boogyman the Internet.

Let’s assume Sanchez isn’t ignorant. She’s at least Net savvy enough to issue a press release condemning the Vietnamese government for censoring bloggers.

Yet, with a bill she’s sponsored that would outlaw “cyberbullying,” Sanchez wants to trample on at least two different provisions of the Constitution and create a law that regulates an outlier.

The outlier in this case is Lori Drew, who was convicted of computer fraud in the death of 13-year-old Megan Meier. Drew, if you’ll remember, was the Missouri woman who humiliated the teen by creating a fake MySpace account and posing as a boy. Meier ultimately killed herself.

Prosecutors went after Drew in a complicated federal case that came down to an allegation that Drew violated MySpace terms of service by creating an account under a false name, hence the fraud. Drew’s conviction ultimately was overturned.

Enter Sanchez – and a number of folks in other states who have rushed in with similar proposals. She wants to make it a crime to make “electronic bullying” a crime. Ay, but it’s not a crime if it’s done face to face.

In trying to craft a bill with a prayer of passing constitutional muster, Sanchez has narrowed her definition of “electronic bullying” to “serious, repeated and hostile communications made with intent to harm.” That’s already a crime in California and in many other states. It’s called “terrorist threats.”

Except, by all accounts, Drew doesn’t appear to have threatened anyone. She slowly drove a young girl mad, but she never threatened her. That’s where existing stalking and harassment laws come in. Most states already have extended those to cover online actions.

So that leaves us with a bill that would make something illegal that’s already illegal and wouldn’t have punished anyone had it been in effect at the time of the incident that inspired it.

Rep. Sanchez, Stop Wasting America’s Time. Virtually every time Congress involves itself in online regulation, it screws up. Remember the law a few years back that made it a federal crime to “annoy” someone on the Internet?

Yes, many states need to update cyberstalking laws, which were tailored too narrowly to begin with and limit the crime to emails. But we don’t need a federal law prohibiting “serious, repeated and hostile communications made with intent to harm.” Any political opponent could easily fall under that definition.

Know of someone who deserves a SWAT? Click here to make a nomination.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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