Bill would turn Internet flamers into felons

The broadly written bill potentially could turn a lot of flamers and bloggers into felons

A little-noticed bill re-introduced in Congress last month would make the use of popular electronic communications a felony if "the intent is to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person."

Given the free-wheeling exchanges that characterize everything from SMS text messages and instant messaging, to blogs and Web site comments, the broadly written bill potentially could turn a lot of flamers and bloggers into felons. If convicted, they would face fines (no amounts given) and prison sentences up to two years.

The bill is H.R. 1966, filed April 2 by Rep. Linda Sanchez, a liberal Democrat for California's 39th district, a horseshoe-shaped patch around Los Angeles, from Whittier through Ceritos to Lynnwood. She was joined by 14 other congressmen. It's been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary.

The bill has recently begun to receive attention, much of it critical, in the online community. Greg Pollowitz, at National Review Online's Media Blog, labeled it the "Censorship Act of 2009."

In fact, some of the comments could even be construed as intended to cause emotional distress under the bill's loosely defined language. Sanchez earlier this week sought to explain and defend the proposal online at HuffingtonPost.com, a political blog that is generally considered liberal. One response to her post was by "radmul," who wrote, "No offense congresswoman but you can't handle prosecuting war criminals for torture so you have no right to bring your lack of ethics to the Web." Another comment, from "dubster," attacked still another poster who blamed the Megan Meier tragedy on "bad parenting": "I detest jerks like you, that can't comprehend the gravity and severity of certain things."

HR 1966 is Sanchez' second attempt (she first filed in May 2008) to enact the "Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act," a reference to a Missouri 13-year-old who in 2007 killed herself, apparently in despair over a bullying campaign organized against her on MySpace. A federal grand jury brought indictments against one of the teens involved, but the trial jury reduced three of the four felony counts to misdeameanors, and deadlocked on the fourth.

Incidents like these have spawned local school policies and state laws against cyberbullying. At least 13 states have passed laws, including California earlier this year. But many of these require only administrative actions, such as suspending or expelling students. And all of them raise the issue of where to draw the line between protecting kids from electronic harassment and protecting the right to free speech.

Given the potential First Amendment issues, the language in HR 1966 is as brief as it is broad. It reads:

(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.

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