Sticks and Stones

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"So here I am -- Comrade Sonia -- ready to serve you all! Comrade students! We've got to stand up for our rights. We've got to learn to speak our proletarian will and make our enemies take notice. We've got to stamp our proletarian boot into their white throats and their treacherous intentions. Our Red schools are for Red students." -- Comrade Sonia in Ayn Rand's We the Living, p.64

The latest egalitarian to raise her combat boot for the purpose of planting it firmly on the throats of American citizens is Representative Linda Sanchez of California, who has introduced a bill, HR-1966, which is ostensibly to prevent "cyber--bullying," but which -- like a Texas bill that literally bans marriage -- is so vaguely written that it can be construed to criminalize a wide array of ordinary Internet activities. (Note that my link to the bill differs from that on page 2 of the Network World article cited by Ars Technica: Thomas, the web presence of the Library of Congress, seems to have a case of amnesia as I write this. OpenCongress, on the other hand, is working. Remember this the next time you hear some official complain that private enterprise can't be depended upon to get information out to the public.)

Here is the text of the bill pertaining to cyber-bullying, as quoted by Network World:

(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.
The article goes on to elaborate:
The bill defines "communication" as "the electronic transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user's choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received."

Electronic means" is defined as "any equipment dependent on electrical power to access an information service, including email, instant messaging, blogs, Web sites, telephones, and text messages."

HR 1966, formally an amendment to Title 18, "Crimes and Criminal Procedure," of the U.S. Code, does not define any other term, including "severe emotional distress," "hostile" or even "behavior."

"The law, if enacted, would clearly be facially overbroad (and probably unconstitutionally vague), and would thus be struck down on its face under the First Amendment," wrote Eugene Volokh, the Gary T. Schwartz Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, and blogger in chief at The Volokh Conspiracy, an online legal blog.

Volokh offered six quick sketches of the kinds of activities that could be prosecuted if HR 1966 becomes law, including trying to pressure a politician, organizing a boycott against a company with whose policies you disagree, or even sending angry e-mails to an unfaithful lover.
Network World also notes that this bill has gotten very little attention so far.

Nevertheless, we have a Congress that passes foolish legislation unread, and I am not so happy about our judiciary's track record of ruling laws void for vagueness. We should keep an eye out for this one.

We live in interesting times -- made morbidly so by widespread confusion over the nature (and evil) of the initiation of physical force (and the proper role of government as an agent of retaliation against same). Mere words are being used as justification for real, unwarranted intrusions of force into the lives of people who merely want to exchange ideas.

And thus it is that the real bully poses as a champion of the oppressed.

-- CAV

PS: I just remembered that "linda" is Spanish for "nice" or "pretty." As Fred G. Sanford might put it if he were an Objectivist blogger, "Beauty may be skin deep, but irony goes clear to the bone."

This may be a cheap shot, but I do not deserve criminal prosecution for it. Nor has the government any right to to impose it upon me.


: Added a PS.


Doug Reich said...


Recall that Cass Sunstein, Obama's nominee for regulatory "czar" and a potential nominee to the Supreme Court, supports "civility checks" on emails and a "fairness doctrine" for the internet. This bill is exactly the kind of legislation that I assume he would support.

Although it is not being taken seriously now, this legislation should be regarded as yet another "trial balloon", i.e., a small step in a larger movement to overthrow free speech.

Thanks for alerting us to this bill.

Gus Van Horn said...

And thank you for your valuable addition to my post.