Prompted by outrage over a Missouri teen’s suicide after an internet hoax, United States Rep. Kenny Hulshof on May 22 introduced a bill that would impose federal criminal penalties for cyber bullying.
Hulshof, a Missouri Republican who is running for governor of that state, said the measure might prevent more tragedies like that of 13-year-old Megan Meier.
Megan killed herself two years ago after receiving cruel messages on a social networking web site from a fictional boy she met online.
Lori Drew, the mother of another girl in Megan’s suburban St. Louis neighborhood, has been charged for her alleged role in the hoax under criminal statutes dealing with wire fraud. (See "Woman indicted in MySpace suicide case.") But no federal law deals specifically with internet bullying.
"The Megan Meier Act would give prosecutors the tools to protect kids from the most egregious of online predatory attacks," Hulshof said in a statement.
The effort in Congress comes a week after Missouri lawmakers approved a bill making cyber harassment illegal. The state measure revises Missouri law to cover harassment via computers, text messages, and other electronic devices.
Hulshof’s bill would allow federal prosecutors to go after online messages meant "to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause emotional distress" to others. Those convicted under the measure would face a fine or up to two years in jail.
"This bill establishes a fair legal standard," Hulshof said. "It sets needed limits for online conduct while protecting free speech."
But Bruce Sanford, a First Amendment lawyer in Washington, D.C., questioned whether the federal proposal would pass constitutional muster.
"I don’t even think that’s plausibly constitutional," Sanford said. "Congress has a completely undistinguished track record of passing impulsively unconstitutional laws when it comes to new technologies."
He cited the example of federal laws trying to regulate decency on the internet, which have consistently been struck down when tested in the courts.
"It would be nice to think that Congress would act more intelligently when they try to regulate in an area of such constitutional sensitivity," Sanford said. "But their track record is they just don’t. They pass bills that are politically popular but hopelessly unconstitutional."
Hulshof co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.