- A bill introduced in the House of Representatives last month by Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., is designed to prevent cyberbullying, making it punishable by a fine and up to two years in prison.
But at least one blogger is calling the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act the "Censorship Act of 2009" -- and many free speech advocates say its language is too broad and that it would act as judge and jury to determine whether there is significant evidence to prove that one person "cyberbullied" another.
"We have existing harassment statutes in all 50 states that already cover this problem," says Parry Aftab, a lawyer and Internet security expert who's at the forefront of the anti-cyberbullying movement. "We don't need Linda Sanchez's law."
Even Sanchez's attempt to define the term "cyberbullying" poses problems, said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.
"The bill defines it as 'using electronic means to support severe, repeated and hostile behavior,' but what does 'severe, hostile and repeated behavior' mean?" he asked.
"I've written articles opposing the bill that have appeared online. That's electronic and -- because I've written a few of them -- repeated. I was also severe and hostile in my criticisms. Under her law, I can now go to jail."
And so could many political commentators and Web bloggers who earn their keep by being confrontational and inflammatory. A TV host like MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, who's been openly and repeatedly hostile to former Vice President Dick Cheney on his Web site, would not be safe from prosecution, the analysts say.
Even advocates of child safety on the Internet say the bill is impractical, at best.
"Even if you wanted to, you can't legislate against meanness," said Larry Magid, co-director of ConnectSafely.org. "It's contextual. If I call you fat, maybe I was bullying, or maybe I was concerned about your health, or maybe it was a relatively innocuous slight."
- (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.