Why is it difficult to pass a federal cyberbullying law? (Hint: The First Amendment)

why is it difficult to pass a federal cyberbullying law
Why are legislators having a tough time drafting federal cyberbullying laws that pass?

Why is it difficult to pass a federal cyberbullying law? Let’s discuss.

Every day, minors are tormented online by peers and parents of peers. To escape the emotional digital prison, some victims, like Missouri teenager Megan Meier, have even paid the ultimate price.

Recognizing the destructive effects of cyberbullying, victim advocacy groups have pushed for online harassment laws, and politicians have hastened to draft effective statutes.

Why Is It Difficult To Pass A Federal Cyberbullying Law?

But few federal cyberbullying law proposals have worked.

So, why is it difficult to pass a federal cyberbullying law? Why can’t politicians strike the right balance between curbing dangerous digital harassment and protecting free speech? In most cases, the failure is a result of sloppy language that creates censorship loopholes.

Below are three examples of online harassment laws introduced within the last 12 months. Notice a pattern?

New York’s Cyberbullying Bill: Politicians Wanted To Outlaw Anonymous Online Speech, But Were Sent Back To The Drafting Table

The Internet Protection Act was New York’s attempt at curbing cyberbullying. Under the proposal, victims would “claim” offensive posts; if the poster refused to reveal their legal name, the website operator would be compelled to remove the material. Legislators introduced the bill, but then quickly pulled it for language revisions.

Though touted as a cyberbullying prevention act, the IPA also includes protections against “mean-spirited and baseless political attacks.” The Internet Protection Act specifically mentions trade libel, as well.

Illinois’s Cyberbullying Proposal: Legislators Proposed Limits on Anonymous Online Speech, But Quickly Crawled Back & Are Now Working on Another Option

On February 13, 2013, Illinois State Senate representative Ira I. Silverstein introduced the Internet Posting Removal Act – SB 1614. Like New York’s proposal, Illinois addressed the issue of anonymous cyberbullying.

An aggressive piece of legislation, SB1614 aims to ameliorate cyberbullying thusly:

Anonymous Internet poster; right to know. A web site administrator upon request shall remove any comments posted on his or her website by an anonymous poster unless the anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post and confirms that his or her IP address, legal name and home address are accurate.

When you read the bill solely through cyberbullying prevention lenses, it makes sense. But what happens when a politician uses the statute to silence critics? Precise language is a must when it comes to laws; loose lips sink ships, and loose language can annihilate freedoms.

Arizona’s Cyberbullying Law: At First It Failed, Then Succeeded After Language Changes

In the spring of 2012, the Arizona State Legislator passed House Bill 2549, which outraged free speech advocates. Detractors bristled over a broadly worded section of the bill:

“It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend to use a telephone or any electronic device and use obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act, or threaten to inflict physical harm to the person or property of any person.”

Arizona’s Governor, Jan Brewer, agreed with the detractors. She made it clear: Change the language or she’d veto HB 2549. So, sponsors went back to the whiteboard, struck the words “annoy or offend,” and defined that actions rely on explicit threats. With those changes, Gov. Brewer signed it into law. As such, it’s now illegal in Arizona “for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten or harass a specific person or persons” to do the following:

  1. Direct any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act to the person in an electronic communication.
  2. Disturb by repeated anonymous, unwanted or unsolicited electronic communications.

The Arizona cyberbullying law does dedicate a section to the precedence of constitutionally protected speech.