Is Legislation The Way To Stop Cyberbullying?

The first federal cyberbullying law, the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, has made it to a House committee. But critics say the law would let prosecutors "harass the harasser," and the law raises the question: can laws really stop bullying?

The Megan Meier Act states that "electronic communications provide anonymity to the perpetrator and the potential for widespread public distribution, potentially making them severely dangerous and cruel to youth," and that "cyberbullying can cause psychological harm, including depression; negatively impact academic performance, safety, and the well-being of children in school; force children to change schools; and in some cases lead to extreme violent behavior, including murder and suicide." But its real meat is the following:

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.

Part of the No Child Left Behind Act does require schools to institute anti-bullying efforts, but no federal law currently prohibits cyberbullying. The Megan Meier Act would change that. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) argues that the law is necessary because, "Bullying has gone electronic. This literally means kids can be bullies at any hour of the day or the night, or even in the victims' own home." British bullying victim Emily Moor agrees. Of her harassment from the ages of 13 to 18, she says, "Bullying usually ends when you leave school, but with Facebook it feels as if there is no end." Her mother adds,

The internet is a sinister, silent enemy: you simply don't know where to start to tackle the problem. But faceless as a computer may be, it is every bit as threatening as a physical bully, if not more so because the audience reading these horrible messages can be enormous.

The Daily Mail is calling Moor's tormentor "the first Internet bully sent to jail" in Britain, but she also physically assaulted Moor, and it's likely she would go to jail in the US too, cyberbullying laws or no. And many in the House feel that specific laws preventing online harassment give prosecutors too much power. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) says the Megan Meier Act "appears to be another chapter of over criminalization," and that it could be used to prosecute the "mean-spirited liberals" who criticize him on blogs. He added that prosecutors might use the law to "harass the harasser," and that, "a good prosecutor could indict a ham sandwich."

While harassment by a sandwich is something I'd like to see, it is true that the Internet is still relatively uncharted legal territory, and laws regarding it can be misused. Megan Meier's harasser Lori Drew was initially convicted of violating the MySpace terms of service, but a judge overturned her conviction because it would allow anyone who violated a website's service terms to be prosecuted. As heinous as Drew's behavior was, such a precedent might give websites enormous powers to get users thrown behind bars for crimes much less serious than hers.

Then there's the question of whether legislation is even the right way to combat bullying. Forty-five states now have some sort of anti-cyberbullying law, but harassment researcher Catherine Hill says there's no indication yet that they actually prevent bullying. And Justin W. Patchin, coauthor of Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying, says,

I really don't want to criminalize this behavior. I think there is a role for both the federal and state governments in terms of educating local school districts about what cyber-bullying is and what they can do about it, and providing resources to help them prevent and respond to online aggression. But criminalization doesn't seem to me to be the best approach.

Whenever a child is bullied, especially when the bullying has dire consequences as in the case of Megan Meier (pictured, with her mom), it's natural to ask why the authorities in the child's life didn't offer protection. And schools shouldn't throw up their hands and dismiss bullying as a fact of life, as Moor's school initially did. Criminally prosecuting bullying after the fact may have a place in any anti-bullying campaign, especially inasmuch as acknowledges that virtual harassment can cause real harm. But the often anonymous nature of cyberbullying will always make it difficult to prosecute all offenders, and the danger of over-prosecution is (despite Gohmert's flippancy) a real one. Just as British libel laws can leave some journalists afraid to criticize anyone, cyberbullying laws could unfairly target bloggers. It might be more effective to prevent cyberbullying at the source, by teaching kids better methods of conflict resolution. Patchin himself, however, admits that we're still not sure how to do this. Cyberbullying may be new, but bullying itself is one of the many ancient human evils we don't really know how to curtail. At least Megan Meier's case has made us aware that we need to.

Cyberbullying Bill Gets Chilly Reception [Wired]
Facebook Bullies Ruined My Life: As The First Internet Bully Is Sent To Jail, The Story That Will Terrify Every Parent [Daily Mail]
Preventing Cyberbullying Remains Terra Incognita [Miller-McCune]