by David Rittgers
On Wednesday the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing on the proposed cyberbullying legislation I mentioned in this post. Cato adjunct scholar Harvey Silverglate testified at the hearing, and his written testimony is available here.
Silverglate highlighted the pernicious potential of this law, which sits at the nexus of his two books. The Shadow University highlights how speech codes have impaired free expression on college campuses nationwide. Three Felonies a Day shows how federal criminal law has expanded to define various innocuous activities as federal felonies. Put the two together and a federal cyberbullying law is what you get. Silverglate’s recent podcast is available here, and he recently appeared at a Cato book forum.
The proposed cyberbullying law would impose a federal felony (two-year maximum sentence) upon anyone who uses electronic means to communicate a message intended to “coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person.” Under this law, rude emails, texts, or blog posts can all subject someone to hard time as long as a receiving party alleges “substantial emotional distress.”
The Committee expressed constitutional concerns over this proposal. Chairman Bobby Scott (D-VA) pointed out the potential chilling effect that this could have on lawful but provocative speech. Ranking Member Louie Gohmert (R-TX) highlighted the unintended consequences that this bill could have — though intended to protect teens from online bullying, Gohmert said it could prompt prosecution of political opponents who had posted offensive things about him on a blog. There is no limiting language in the statute to prevent such a result. Gohmert said that while this would be satisfying, it would also be unconstitutional and among the reasons not to endorse the legislation.
Other problems plague the proposed statute. A Congressional Research Service report highlights some of the constitutional issues, but the discussion at the hearing brought others to the fore. States that have passed their own cyberbullying sanctions have overwhelmingly done so with misdemeanor, not felony, charges. The felony problem is compounded by the fact that this is a statute intended to apply largely to the conduct of teenagers. A felony charge is both excessive and complicated by the fact that there are no long-term federal juvenile detention facilities — they are referred to state facilities instead.
University of Virginia law professor (and former university president) Robert O’Neil said, in spite of all those concerns, that the proposed law could be tweaked to avoid the feared demerits. In his written testimony, O’Neil notes the difference between offensive political speech and “true threats,” the latter not receiving constitutional protection. He proposes using Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED), a traditional state tort claim, as the legal basis for justifying the proposed law. This is an odd foundation for a federal criminal law — no state defines IIED as a crime, and many states require a showing of physical harm for a plaintiff to recover. When Rep. Gohmert pressed him on this, O’Neil said that in spite of the lack of legal foundation for a federal crime based on IIED, it was “worth a try.”
No thanks. Let’s not try. Let’s keep our liberties intact and not do further damage to the law.