Proposed New Law Says: "Upset Me – Go to Prison!"

More government, more laws, less freedom, less personal responsibility… Welcome to the nanny state. Jcal
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—–Original Message—–
From: David Farber
Date: Sat, 9 May 2009 12:52:38 To: ip
Subject: [IP] Proposed New Law Says: “Upset Me – Go to Prison!”
Begin forwarded message:
From: Lauren Weinstein
Date: May 9, 2009 12:19:34 PM EDT
Subject: Proposed New Law Says: “Upset Me – Go to Prison!”
  Proposed New Federal Law Says: “Upset Me – Go to Prison!”
Greetings. I sometimes speak and write about contentious and
controversial topics. I like to think that most of the time I have
the angels on my side, but certainly there are some people who
disagree with me on certain issues, and who don’t hesitate about
telling me so — sometimes loudly, repeatedly, and even impolitely.
I have a pretty thick skin, but golly, [sniff], I do have feelings.
Some of those messages can be pretty, well, distressing emotionally,
ya’ know?
But if a new proposal in Congress becomes law, I might be able to send
those disagreeing folks to federal prison! Now that’s entertainment!
This new power to incarcerate would come courtesy of H.R. 1966,
proposed by California Democrat Linda Sanchez and around a dozen
co-sponsors, who obviously feel that the first amendment to the U.S.
Constitution has the elastic properties of Silly Putty.
The bill, now in the House Judiciary Committee says, “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.”
What’s going on of course is that this legislation is being framed as
an attack on “cyberbullying” — the actual bill is called the Megan
Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, named for the 13-year-old who
tragically committed suicide last year after receiving upsetting
MySpace messages.
The legislation, by the way, doesn’t limit its coverage to Internet
messages — it would also apparently sweep in text messages, phone
calls, Web sites, radio and television programs and commentaries …
and so on.
This is yet another example of seemingly well-intentioned legislation
that would create a firestorm of presumably unintentional collateral
damage to constitutionally protected free speech.
You can make your own list of problematic aspects, but here’s a few to
get started. Determining “intent” as specified by the legislation is
a can of worms in and of itself. When a collection agency repeatedly
calls a debtor and harasses them about payments, is their intent to
cause them severe emotional distress to get them to pay up?
When someone sets up a Web site critical of a company’s officers, what
is the intent? Is the intent to get better service, cause severe
emotional distress, or both? Would every hit on that Web site count
as “repeated” behavior?
Clearly such a law would be a cash cow for psychologists. As expert
witnesses on both sides at the associated trials, they’d be needed to
argue about the true “intent” of defendants.
Well, you get the idea. Due to its very broad scope and impact on
what we normally consider to be free speech, this legislation, if
approved by Congress, faces a litigation path longer than the route
from Munchkinland to Oz, and with a seemingly rather low probability
of successfully reaching the Emerald City.
Presumably the sponsors of this legislation are fully aware of this,
and naturally I wouldn’t want to suggest that perhaps what’s really
going on with this proposal is political grandstanding.
But if the legislation ever does become law and passes judicial
muster, my critics had better watch their steps. You wouldn’t want to
hurt my feelings and end up in the slammer, would you?
Lauren Weinstein
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800
Co-Founder, PFIR
  – People For Internet Responsibility –
Co-Founder, NNSquad
  – Network Neutrality Squad –
Founder, GCTIP – Global Coalition
  for Transparent Internet Performance –
Founder, PRIVACY Forum –
Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Lauren’s Blog:
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