Can Cyberbullying Be Legislated?

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the indictment of the woman who harassed teenager Megan Meier and in that post I talked about the importance of adults taking responsibility for activities teens take part in on the web. I was reminded of that post as I read about new legislation in Congress, The Megan Meier Cyberbullying Protection Act – H.R. 6123. This act states:

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.

At first glance it might seem like that legal statement makes a lot of sense. But, in reading more about that portion of the Act, it might become more and more clear that legislating cyberbullying is just something that can’t really work. The sponsors of the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Protection Act are Linda Sanchez and Kenny Hulshof and as stated on the Volokh Conspiracy blog:

Wow. So if I harshly criticize Reps. Sanchez and Hulshof (“hostile”) at least twice (“repeated”) in a way that a jury finds “severe,” whatever that exactly means, and if I do that “with the intent to … cause substantial emotional distress,” I could go to prison for up to two years. My criticism could be perfectly accurate. It could be an expression of my opinion, including on political, social, or religious issues. The desire to cause substantial emotional distress could be prompted by the target’s reprehensible actions or political views, and could be coupled with a genuine attempt to persuade the public. Doesn’t matter: My actions would be a crime.

Even Megan Meier’s mother seems to know that legislation isn’t the answer to the problem of cyberbullying she recently is quoted as saying:

…Change has to start with the kids, but parents need to talk more to their children. ‘The biggest thing I tell parents is to communicate and know what’s going on with their child. They have to know what apps they’re using and be on those sites.’

Bullying of any kind is horrendous, no matter where it takes place – whether it be in a virtual or physical space. What happened to Megan Meier is also horrendous. But, is it really possible for the federal government to legislate bullying – whether it be virtual or physical?

This is an issue that will most likely be of concern to adults serving teens, and teens, for a long time. It’s a good idea to stay on top of what’s happening locally and nationally and be ready to talk about the importance of educating teens and adults about online (and offline) behaviors. A law might make adults feel that teens are safe from cyberbullying. But, is that really going to be the case?

About Linda W Braun

Linda W Braun is a YALSA Past President, the YALSA CE Consultant, and a learning consultant/project management coordinator at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online.
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One Comment

  1. I haven’t read the proposed legislation; but for things like this, my first question remains, is this covered under existing legislation? Are we saying “regular” bullying is “OK” (ie not covered by federal statute) but cyberbullying is not? Personally, I still do not understand how the woman in the Megan Meier’s case did nothing criminal under her state and local law. But the sad truth is we cannot legislate away everything.

    That said, I am amazed at what people say online. And disheartened by just how cruel they can be; while being online is great for shy people to have an avenue to speak, it can also allow more cruelty. (Have you seen Jezebel’s weekly post where they point out some of the horrible things the gossip blogs say about celebrity women?) Still, I don’t think “there should be a law…” is the best answer.

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