By David Rittgers
Louisiana has a new law on the books that outlaws “any electronic textual, visual, written, or oral communication with the malicious and willful intent to coerce, abuse, torment, or intimidate a person under the age of eighteen.”
This is a statute aimed at “cyberbullying,” the increasingly common use of text messages and social media as a vehicle for teenage taunting. The issue caught its first big headlines with the Lori Drew case. The case against the Missouri woman hailed into court in California for suicide-inducing internet harassment was a stretch of an existing federal statute that was ultimately thrown out. The government continues to contend that violating a website’s terms of service is a federal crime.
The federal cyberbullying statute proposed last year was a monstrosity. Felony time (up to two years) for a statute that will primarily be used against minors is excessive. There is no dedicated federal juvenile justice system, and this is not a good excuse to create one. Harvey Silverglate, Cato Adjunct Scholar and author of Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, testified at the hearings last fall.
The state laws aimed at cyberbullying are generally less onerous than the proposed federal one. The crime is a misdemeanor, and offenders under the age of seventeen are directed to the juvenile justice system. As Eugene Volokh points out, this law is still pretty bad:
Would publishing an online editorial — or a blog post — condemning an underage criminal for his crimes qualify as “malicious and willful intent to … abuse [or] torment”? Or would it not be “malicious” because it would be justified by righteous indignation (in which case I take it courts would have to decide what indignation is righteous and what is not)? Note that the law isn’t limited to messages sent only to the target, but includes speech published to the world at large as well.
Would sending a message castigating an ex-lover for cheating (assuming both the ex-lover and the sender are 17) qualify as “malicious and willful intent to … abuse [or] torment”? What if the message “speak[s] insultingly, harshly, and unjustly” (unjustly, that is, in the view of the judge), which is the dictionary definition of “abuse” that seems most relevant to speech?
So either the law is too broad, or it will be narrowed only by reading “malicious” as limited to speech that courts dislike — which raises the risk of impermissible content and viewpoint discrimination. And until the narrowing takes place (and maybe even after that), the law will be remarkably vague.
The exception for religious speech is also probably unconstitutional, because it treats nonreligious speech worse than religious speech. Cf. R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (holding that content-based distinctions are presumptively unconstitutional even when they operate within an unprotected category of speech).
Volokh has provided excellent coverage of the development of this law — from proposal, to adoption, and even the scrivener’s error that purports to protect free speech from cyberbullying charges via the state constitution’s right-to-bail provision. He coined the “cybertormenting” term as well, which has the rhetorical flair appropriate for a legislative overreach of this magnitude.