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Anti-cyberbullying bill oversteps the Constitution

Cyberbullying has become a real problem in the last decade. Internet users, particularly teens and children, are routinely victimized under the veil of anonymity provided by the web.

In 2009, the St. Petersburg Times reported the suicide of 13-year-old Hope Witsell, who was harassed and bullied on and offline after she sent a topless photo to a boy she liked. Another girl, who borrowed the boy’s phone, forwarded the photo to her friends before it went viral.

Measures must be taken to minimize bullying, but the anti-First Amendment legislation that some New York Senators are proposing is not the right course.

According to the report, “Cyberbullying: A Report on Bullying in the Digital Age,” authored last month by senators including Jeff Klein, their proposed “bill will do two things: (1) Expand the crime of stalking in the third degree to include cyberbullying; and (2) expand the crime of manslaughter in the second degree to include the emerging problem of bullycide.”

The report discusses the problems of cyberbullying frankly and fairly, but to accomplish its aims it argues for a “more refined First Amendment (and) that (First Amendment) freedom should be treated not as a right, but as a privilege, a special entitlement granted by the state on a conditional basis that can be revoked if it is ever abused or mistreated.”

That idea is enough to send a shiver down the spine of any American. The U.S. does not traditionally view First Amendment rights as a “privilege.” In fact, they were made an amendment precisely so they could never be taken away. Freedom of speech has always had its critics, and people have tried restricting the First Amendment to protect children before. Though parents wanted to protect their children from controversial games such as “Grand Theft Auto,” according to Newseum, “the U.S. Supreme court ruled June 27 that states cannot restrict the sale or rental of video games to minors, a decision that reinforces First Amendment protection for interactive games and the free-expression rights of children.”

Parental responsibility and communication with their children has been the primary method of dealing with bullies in the past, and shouldn’t be replaced by unconstitutional legislation. Furthermore, the US has no jurisdiction to limit free speech of foreigners on the Internet, which knows no borders. The senators’ report defined the following behaviors as cyberbullying: “flaming” (intentionally making provocative and inflammatory comments), “happy-slapping” (assaulting someone and then posting a video), “trolling” (similar to flaming except the poster is purposefully baiting people into an emotional response), “posting malicious statements or comments of a victim on a website,” “outing” (exposing secret information or images of a person online), “dissing” (gossiping online), “impersonation,” (e.g. abusing another person’s accounts and posting information or pictures that can get them in trouble) and “exclusion (intentionally and cruelly excluding someone from an online group).”

These are undoubtedly hurtful behaviors, and all those whose lives were either damaged or ended by cyberbullying deserve justice. Even so, trying to make behaviors such as “flaming” and “trolling” illegal is absurd given ordinary free speech rights. Westboro Baptist Church regularly makes comments that can be characterized as “flaming,” yet earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that it is still protected by the First Amendment.

Any legislation dealing with cyberbullying must recognize the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. Likewise, friends and families should remain involved and aware in teens’ lives, becoming the first defense against bullying.