Your Blog is a Weapon?

Law prof Eugene Volokh blogs about a U.S. House of Representatives bill proposed by Rep. Linda T. Sanchez and 14 others that could make it a federal felony to use your blog, social media like MySpace and Facebook, or any other web media "To Cause Substantial Emotional Distress Through "Severe, Repeated, and Hostile" Speech." Oh lordy, there goes 4chan.
Here's the relevant text:

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....

["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; ...

["Electronic means"] means any equipment dependent on electrical power to access an information service, including email, instant messaging, blogs, websites, telephones, and text messages.

Jacob Sullum at Reason thinks the proposed law is stupid, too.
It was bad enough that a grandstanding U.S. attorney successfully prosecuted Lori Drew, a Missouri woman who participated in a cruel MySpace prank that apparently precipitated the 2006 suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier, under an anti-hacking law that clearly was not intended for this sort of situation. Now Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) and 14 of her colleagues want to make such prosecutions easier through a breathtakingly broad bill that would criminalize a wide range of speech protected by the First Amendment. The Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act would make it a felony punishable by up to two years in prison to transmit an electronic communication ("including email, instant messaging, blogs, websites, telephones, and text messages") "with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior."
(Thanks, Glenn Reynolds)


  1. I agree that this proposed law seems overly broad and rediculous, and does impinge on the right to free speech. But at the same time, isn’t it worth trying to address electronic harassment?

    With the internet having become a practically necessary requirement for daily life, it’s hardly fair to tell people to ‘suck it up or turn it off’. And as the election of Obama shows, the internet can both reach and change the minds of many people.

    If physical bullying is illegal for any number of reasons, and stalking somebody physically is illegal, why shouldn’t electronic bullying and electronic stalking be so as well?

  2. The explicit text of this bill makes it illegal to:

    “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.”

    So using the internet with intent to intimidate using electronic means to support hostile behavior shall be punished.

    That is absolutely an unacceptable attack on free speech. It’s using a sledgehammer to try to drive in a thumb tack.

  3. “…the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person…”

    On the bright side, gaudy web advertising is now a crime.

  4. It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practise either of them. – Mark Twain

  5. Isn’t existing libel law sufficient? Creating a new law does little if you aren’t going to enforce the old ones…

  6. Why do we need a separate set of laws for online harassment? If the laws already exist, maybe we should just be educating people on how to use them?

  7. So this means that we will all have to be civil to each other on the Internet?

    Because this proposed law encompasses ‘electronic’ communication, it could be applied to those who make disparaging remarks or engage in tirades against someone on television or radio that might be interpreted as causing ‘severe’ emotional distress or “…severe, repeated, and hostile behavior.” How can this be a good thing, or even remotely Constitutional? Keep in mind that even the Nazi (Godwin not applied) party in the U.S. has its lunatic ravings protected to certain extent by the First Amendment.

    We all know that yelling “Fire!”, in a crowded space, can result in actual or potential ‘physical’ harm to people so utterances like that cannot be deem as protected speech. I doubt this would pass its first constitutional challenge, let alone actually be passed into law -but, stranger things have happened.

  8. Libel law? No. What happened to Megan Maier wasn’t libel. It was harrassment, the worst kind.

    The state where it happened didn’t have good enough laws. Something does need to be done, and the federal level is the best place to do it.

    But this bill is too broad. Gods, the House is an endless generator of insanity and stupidity, isn’t it?

    You know what I want? A law making it a felony for a legislator to introduce legislation that they know or should know is unConstitutional.

  9. #4:

    On the bright side, gaudy web advertising is now a crime.

    I’m just waiting for some lobbyist to get it into the empty head of one of their pet congresscritters that they should pass a bill banning ad-blockers. You mark my words, it’s only a matter of time…

  10. “If physical bullying is illegal for any number of reasons, and stalking somebody physically is illegal, why shouldn’t electronic bullying and electronic stalking be so as well?”

    It’s also really hard to prosecute physical bullying and teasing and usually doesn’t lead to a 2 year jail sentence on felony charges.

    But hey, those 4th graders who teased me back in gradeschool should have been tried as adults for the emotional distress they caused me and have felony charges put forth on them too.

    Seriously man when do we stop with this stuff?

  11. Before we all get too freaked out about this, has any legal scholar compared the new law to existing harassment laws? I do think we need some kind of law against cyber-stalking and harassment but I’d like to see if this law actually has a different standard than existing harassment laws.

  12. KATTW

    I’m concerned that there is even a comparison between the real world of bullying and its electronic equivalent. Physical harassment involves the victim is being forced into a situation that is unwanted and harmful, whereas much of the online world is actively pursued by the victim. Aside from email or some chat variant, both which include blocking/filtering methods, all internet activities are elected by the user.

    In my case when I perceive that someone or something isn’t beneficial or even neutral to my well being, then I avoid the situation. I don’t return to them in order to receive more abuse. This is true on the internet as well. If something doesn’t feel right about some community, then I find somewhere else to spend my time.

    It seems to me that because one girl developed an emotional attachment to a non-existent boy and ended her life when she couldn’t handle rejection we may be heading to a time where posting thoughts such as “Billy is a douchenozzle,” may be criminalized so that Billy, who may be an asshat, won’t suffer repercussions from his behavior in the online world.

    If this bill became law, could one perhaps try to declare television an analog to the internet and get rid of those damn televangelists who continue to chastise me with threats of eternal damnation?

  13. Is this overly broad? Yes. But if you want to successfully fight it, you need to realize that the proponents are not trying to stop 4th graders from teasing one another. They are trying to stop the woman who harassed Megan Maier and the people that harassed the Yale law students.

    Rather than mocking the proponents, we should be calling our Congresspeople with suggestions for a good bill. Because, as we get more cases like the Yale law students, there will be a greater call for legislation in this area.

  14. This could knock out virtually all comments pages for youtube, your local newspaper, Mac fanboys vs wintards, whatever. Not to mention a concerted campaign to shut down and imprison any political extremist blogger, right or left (I propose we start with the right). Great fun!

  15. I agree with VKE. When I first heard about the bill, I thought – yes, someone needs to know that online harassment is illegal and if we need to change laws to enforce that, great. I did think a felony was ridiculous. Posing as a boyfriend to a vulnerable teenager and then ‘dumping’ her, and then same teenage commits suicide? Not only all kinds of bullshit but something we should clearly say is illegal.

    Now that I think more about it and read this thread, I agree that the proposed law is terrible.

    I wonder what the best approach would be. Some key characteristics might be:

    1) misrepresentation / duplicity;
    2) personal involvement / ad hominem (gaining confidence / expressing love or attacking them personally);
    3) Stalking / intensive intrusions into private life; AND
    3)vulnerable population (teenager) by an adult

    Sounds like my relationships before I turned 18.

    I wonder: where is my virtual chin that your virtual fist will hit? E.g., libel, etc, seems like a good start.

  16. Comcast, GE, Bank of America (buying adspace with the bailout money we gave them). Now you’re cozying up to Glen Reynolds? Does the wonderfulness ever start?

  17. So Jacob Sullum objects to the prosecution of an adult woman who drove a 13 year old to suicide because the wrong law was used. But he also objects to a correct law being created. Suggesting a better law is one thing. Saying that it’s a travesty to prosecute harassment is another. Unfuck him!

  18. Wow. Both the Dems and the Repubs are shooting for destroying our Constitution.

    Same coin, different sides.

    I am really fealing some serious hate for our politicians.

    Why are they so bent on destroying our great country?

  19. The problem with this law is that our legislators don’t know how to do their farging jobs.

    A far better way to protect the Megan Maiers out there would be 2 laws like this:

    1. “But it was just online,” is Not An Excuse.
    Ask this question: if this person’s online behavior were face-to-face, would it be considered staking, or harassment, or abuse? If the answer is, “Yes,” then it IS staking, or harassment, or abuse, and shall be covered by the relevant laws.

    2. Psychological Assault is still Assault
    Any persistent, constant verbal attacks, harassment, or mental manipulation such as “gaslighting,” that causes psychological damage to another person shall be treated equivalent to physical assault by the law.

    ….so to clarify #2: if you put someone in the hospital without ever hitting them, but by attacking their mental health, you’ve still assaulted them.


  20. JSO, so you’re of the mindset that “words can never hurt me?” I think that’s not really true; as the saying goes, the pen is mightier than the sword. When you have someone on the hook and connected with you, it’s not that simple for them to turn around and walk away. Especially if you’re emailing them, calling them, contacting their friends, leaving messages on their facebook page, etc. etc. You can’t walk away from a determined online harasser, and you can’t expect a young or naive person to want to disconnect from what they perceive to be their friends and support network.

    Online harassment is, to me, every bit as damaging as “real world” bullying. If not more so. Pushing someone down and taking their lunch money is a traumatic, one-time event. Pursuing them through multiple communication channels and poisoning their friends against them has a deep rooted psychological effect that can result in major long term problems.

  21. @#14
    >In my case when I perceive that someone or something isn’t beneficial or even neutral to my well being, then I avoid the situation. I don’t return to them in order to receive more abuse. This is true on the internet as well. If something doesn’t feel right about some community, then I find somewhere else to spend my time.

    And what do you do when the Internet won’t leave you alone?

    Here’s what will happen if you get into a bad situation in the wrong parts of the Internet: they will destroy your life.

    They’ll take your IP address and your username/password, and they’ll cross-reference that with other sites that have the same profile name or email address. They’ll find out your name for sure. Then, using that and other pieces of personal information that almost all people let slip, along with your IP (which can usually give an approximate geographic location), they’ll probably find out where you live.

    Unless you have very strict personal policies on the Internet, they will find out everything about you. They’ll have your address, your phone number, your place of business, your relatives, EVERYTHING. If you use common passwords, they’ll probably have your email account. If you’re incredibly unlucky, they’ll have your bank accounts. The more skilled and determined might even take your home computers.

    There’s all kinds of people on the Internet. If you’re ever curious about just how far the worst will take something, take a look at (NSFW, I CAN’T SAY THAT ENOUGH) encyclopedia dramatica. If you don’t want to venture that deep (it’s not a nice place), just consider that after /b/ became enamored with Mitchell Henderson’s death, people were calling his family’s house mocking the incident for a year and a half.

    Yes, there are better ways to outlaw raids than broadly outlying all internet bullying (depending on the interpretation of “interstate,” they’re effectively claiming jurisdiction over all Internet traffic in the US). If I had to actually vote on this, I’d vote it down, it’s too vague and broad. But something DOES need to be done, and putting this in the public eye is a step in the right direction.

  22. Amazing! This would outlaw all online license agreements (even just guidelines) since their purpose is to coerce the user into acting or not acting in a certain manner. It would effectively keep all laws and regulations from being electronically transmitted as well–forcing Congress to work only with paper copies.

  23. Bcs cnsrshp s clrly th nswr, whn y’r s ft s hr.

    ps, dd tht jst rn m tw yrs t Clb Fd?

    Fr spch n ths cntry s dcyng s rpdly tht gn strs cn’t kp mm n th shlvs.

  24. I echo sentiments that, as written, this is way too broad and seems stupidly redundant. Harassment, libel, and fraud laws as they exist would seem to me to sufficiently cover this alleged abuse without trampling anyone’s right to express their dissent.

    It is hard for me to get all outraged about a teen who committed suicide because she was “dumped” by someone she had never met in person. Yes, the person who perpetrated this is scum, but I get a lot of harassing spam in my inbox too that anyone with half a brain should ignore. Why must we look to blame society and curtail all of our rights to free speech because of a few isolated incidents, however misguided and unfortunate? The parents should have clearly shouldered some responsibility for their child, or do all computers need to come with a label indicating:

    This is the internet. People you may meet here are most likely not to be in the real world as they may appear to be online.

    And I say all of this as someone who is currently being cyber-stalked by an insane ex (I had no inkling ’til she flipped the crazy switch after I broke up with her.) She spams me and my fiance and friends with rambling neuroses, hits my phone with the same in txts, blogs about me incessantly, and shows up at my doorstep uninvited to shout things at my door. Yes, it is very wrong, and I am on the verge of trying to get a restraining order, but would I wish upon her a two year federal jail sentence? No. I just have to hope she will eventually move on when she finds someone new to stalk or gets tired of a lack of response. In short: I don’t think the federal prison system is going to give her the help she desperately needs, and rarely, if ever, has a real problem been legislated away in this fashion.

  25. I agree with the many reasonable posts above: Yeah, the proposed law is overly broad and ought to be voted down, but it’s ultimately well-intentioned and the issue is important. Electronic speech demands the same protections as any other variety, but it carries the same responsibilities as well.

    Thebes @ 24:

    That comment was perfectly legal and will remain so. It’s just totally contemptible.

    I’d be interested to know what material changes your rights to free speech have undergone in the last 20 years.

    Also: I wouldn’t want to use ammo sales as a benchmark for anything but hysteria.

  26. Seems we already have laws in place to cover harrassment. Also, doesn’t this mean that Rush or Oberman would be fined daily?

  27. It’s not that big a step from this legislation to laws meant to shut down blogs that make mindless foxviewers uncomfortable or distressed with the knowledge that their tax dollars and votes supported torturers and illegal phone tappers…

  28. @ 27. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and so is the road to restricted freedoms (Patriot Act anyone?). The issue is important and so are our free speech rights. We should not bend to the first suggestion (or the second, third, etc) to deal with the harassment issue if the solution presented is a blanket one. Legislation needs to be constitutional and potential, unintended uses, of a law considered before action is taken.

  29. A major problem with laws such as this is in their implementation: urban police are generally either overloaded with major crimes like unsolved murders, or much more interested in drug property seizures that make money for their department. Minor crimes, such as harassment, simply don’t rate their attention.

    Therefore, in reality, harassment and similar laws are only useful to someone who can afford legal representation to prosecute their case…and these laws become a tool for the rich, or the insanely vindictive, to use against the poor and reasonable.

  30. Roku: Yes, and this is the crux that I find myself in with being cyber-stalked. I agree that adding another unenforced law that has much more potential to be abused is just all kinds of wrong. Shouldn’t our current congress critters be undoing the damage of the last 8 years to the Constitution instead of adding to it?

  31. Thebes @27, no, it just earned you an infinite consonant-to-vowel ratio in that particular comment. And maybe an irony award for getting disemvowelled in a thread on free speech and censorship.

    Next time, try it without being insulting.

  32. This is obviously more than just trying to prevent teenage girls from killing themselves. It’s just using current news to try and ram Big Brother down our throats.

  33. “Oh lordy, there goes 4chan.”

    4chan does a good enough job of getting itself taken down through their own hostility toward other sites. /b/ has been down since friday, I believe. Constant wars between 4chan and other chans, not to mention (read the Encyclopedia Dramatica page on that one. Sheesh.) have gone nuclear.

  34. You know what I want? A law making it a felony for a legislator to introduce legislation that they know or should know is unConstitutional

    Yes, yes, yes. Xopher nailed this. This would greatly reduce the number of spurious bills, i.e., Amy’s cat law, Latisha’s leash law, etc. ad infinitum.

  35. 4chan, nothing— I think this would make moderating one’s own website a felony.

  36. This is a bad law. Go and write your congressman to get it fixed.

    This message would be illegal under the new law.

  37. Sigh. If you think you have actual free speech rights in actual America (you know, the one in which you must have a job to live), you’re really kidding yourself.

    Using threatening language in many states is illegal (in my home state of North Carolina, the crime is called “communicating threats,” and yes, people are charged with it routinely). Ever argued with a cop? They call that “resisting arrest” and toss you in jail. Write a “dirty” word in the memo line of a check to your local clerk of courts office and be held in contempt of court. (Google “Robert Militzer.”)

    Nevermind the violations of our free speech rights each and every one of us tolerates to have a job.

    So is this really shocking? No, because we don’t have free speech in the first place.

  38. Sorry , there is a problem with cyber bullying and many websites encourage it and help the criminals cover thier tracks . Will this law help ,it doesn’t sound like it . There is a price for everything even freedom ,in this case it is being civil , not slandering others ,committing fraud ,or making libelous comments . Wow , to preserve freedom of speech don’t hide on the Internet and be a jerk . Shouldn’t be hard unfortunately a few people are scum .

  39. When the Nazis came for the communists,
    I remained silent;
    I was not a communist.

    Then they locked up the social democrats,
    I remained silent;
    I was not a social democrat.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    I did not speak out;
    I was not a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews,
    I did not speak out;
    I was not a Jew.

    When they came for me,
    there was no one left to speak out for me.

    Pastor Martin Niemöller 1892–1984
    Read it yourself on

  40. This is way too broadly worded for my taste. Existing liability and laws against defamation should be sufficient.

  41. Yes that is a good law. I am sick and tired of being called a conspiracy nutcase.

    That hurts my feelings and they should be sent to a prison for 2 years for that!

  42. Think about it, there are many radio shows and activist groups that use the tactic of making phone calls to companies that cost the companies lots of money, they don’t care about people being harassed, this is to keep companies from being harassed. Any individual can press charges for harassment over the phone but even then they can block someones number, e-mail, or otherwise. If someone is really animate in harassing you it can be perused in court and a restraining order can be placed. This has always existed prior to this piece of legislation. This is an action in the best interest of capitol fascist interests.

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