Chavez Cyberbullying Law Would Violate 1st Amendment Rights

| by Reason Foundation

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."

Off the top of his head, UCLA law professor (and Reason contributor) Eugene Volokh suggests half a dozen situations that could be covered by this law, all involving protected speech, including online criticism of politicians, angry demands for refunds from manufacturers of shoddy goods, calls for boycotts, and hostile messages to an ex-boyfriend.

"The examples could be multiplied pretty much indefinitely," he writes at The Volokh Conspiracy. "The law, if enacted, would clearly be facially overbroad (and probably unconstitutionally vague), and would thus be struck down on its face under the First Amendment."