Lawmakers seek ways to stop cyber bullying

Sanchez named her legislation the "Megan Meier Cyber Bullying Prevention Act."
Sanchez named her legislation the "Megan Meier Cyber Bullying Prevention Act."

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives struggled during a Sept. 30 hearing with how to stop the online bullying of children without violating free-speech rights.

Bullying has always been mean-spirited, but a House Judiciary subcommittee was told that federal law does not make it a crime to engage in “cyber bullying” that becomes destructive to its young victims. The worst examples have resulted in child suicides.

Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., aims to change that. Sanchez’s bill would make severe electronic bullying a crime, defining it as repeated, hostile, and severe communication made with intent to harm.

Sanchez named her legislation the “Megan Meier Cyber Bullying Prevention Act” in honor of a 13-year-old Missouri girl who hanged herself in 2006.

Meier was the victim of an internet hoax by an adult, Lori Drew, whose conviction under a computer fraud law was tossed out. The judge cited vagueness of the law, which does not involve cyber bullying, and the chance that innocent internet users could become subject to criminal charges. (See “Cyber-bullying conviction could be tossed.”)

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., has taken a different approach in proposing a new federal assistance program. Under Wasserman Schultz’s bill, competitive grants would allow nonprofit internet safety groups to work with schools and communities to educate them of online dangers. (See “Bill would fund internet safety education.”)

Sanchez told the committee, “I want to acknowledge how difficult it will be to craft a prohibition on cyber bullying that is consistent with the Constitution. But I also believe that working together for our children, we can and must do so.”

She said annoying eMail messages, political blogs, and an unfriendly text to an ex-boyfriend should remain legal, while serious, repeated, and hostile communications made with intent to harm should be a criminal offense.

“I believe that we can protect our right to free speech and victims of cyber bullying at the same time,” she told the Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism, and homeland security.

Missouri already has taken action, passing a law that cyber bullying can be charged as a felony if a victim is 17 years or younger and the suspect 21 or older.

The Missouri law was sparked by the Meier case, in which Drew sought to humiliate the girl by helping create a fictitious teen boy on the social networking site MySpace. The fake boy told Megan the world would be better without her.

John Palfrey, of Harvard Law School, said a task force he led in 2008 left open the question of whether bullying is on the rise.

“It is quite clear that more young people are bullying one another than ever before via digital technologies,” he said. “What is not clear is whether this replaces any traditional, offline forms of bullying. It could be that bullying is neither up nor down as an overall trend, but rather just shifting venues.”

Palfrey chaired the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, which brought together 29 companies, child advocacy groups, and academics. Earlier this year, the panel issued its recommendations for keeping kids safe online, noting that no single approach is foolproof and that parent and teacher oversight is vital. (See “Panel: Technology alone can’t protect kids online.”)

Judi Westberg Warren, president of Web Wise Kids, said her nonprofit online safety group favored education programs. She cautioned that it would be a challenge to impose criminal sanctions that would survive constitutional scrutiny.

“Many actions that would fall under the definition of cyber bullying are not criminal,” she said. “It is also important to separate actions of kids versus actions of adults. Any legislation considered must be careful to avoid criminalizing youth-to-youth communications.”


House Judiciary Committee

Web Wise Kids

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