Hard cases make bad law. That phrase is an apt description for why HB 1261 is this week’s bad bill of the week. HB 1261 sponsored by Rep. Nick Mackey(D-Mecklenburg) and Rep. Earline Parmon (D-Forsyth) criminalizes cyber-bullying and makes it punishable as a misdemeanor. While HB 1261 may have good intentions, that’s the only thing that is good about it. For starters, the legislation is ill-defined, near impossible to enforce and unnecessarily expands the powers of government.
No, I’m not in favor of cyber bullying. But let’s put things in perspective. Most of the calls to outlaw cyber-bullying link back to the tragic case of 13 year-old Megan Meier who struck up an online friendship with “Josh” and later committed suicide. As it turns out, “Josh” wasn’t really a boy, but 50 year-old woman, Lori Drew, who lived a few houses down the street from Meier. Drew’s involvement was driven by a desire to seek revenge against Meier, whom she believed was bullying her own son.
Experts say cyber-bullying happens, but mostly because “bullying” or aggressive behavior is part of teenage behavior. The Meier case is tragic, but uncommon. Drew’s actions, although worthy of condemnation, sensationalize the problem and doesn’t represent normal behavior between teenagers.
Sadly, Meier’s case ended in suicide. If you look closely at other similar cases of suicide, there are usually more significant contributing factors (e.g., depression, problems at home, self-esteem issues) than just cyber-bullying. It’s fallacious to assume cyber-bullying was the main cause of Meier’s death.
Among other things, HB 1261 criminalizes the use of a computer or computer network “with the intent to intimidate or torment a minor.” The law also criminalizes statements, whether true or false, that would “tend to provoke or that actually provoke any third party to stalk or harass a minor.” These are broad, far reaching statements. How do we prove intent? How do we define intimidate, torment or harass? Unfortunately, HB 1261 fails to speak to any of these issues. HB 1261’s expansive scope will in reality work to limit basic freedoms of speech and give government more control over everyday life.
Supporters of HB 1261 say the legislation is necessary to prohibit cyber bullying. This is not true. The fact is, when individuals sign up to be a member of chat rooms or social networking sites, the web sites terms and conditions already prohibit individuals from misrepresenting themselves or engaging in inappropriate or criminal activity. Shouldn’t we enforce existing provisions before creating new legislation?
While Meier’s case is a tragedy, HB 1261 only offers a “solution” that is worse than the problem. HB 1261 limits our freedoms at a time when there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that cyber-bullying is a growing, prevalent and serious problem among teenagers. That said, one wonders: who’s doing the bullying?