Don't Be Mean to People on the Internet

California congresswoman wants to outlaw "cyberbullying"

By Owen Thomas
|  Monday, Oct 19, 2009  |  Updated 4:46 PM CDT
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Don't Be Mean to People on the Internet

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Representative Linda Sanchez wants to make upsetting people a crime.

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Representative Linda Sanchez (D.-Los Angeles) wants to outlaw "cyberbullying."

Only someone from Los Angeles would introduce a bubbleheaded measure that puts a jail sentence on the infliction of "emotional distress."

Oops, did I type that? Under Sanchez's proposed law, if my commentary hurt her feelings -- or those of any other touchy Angeleno , for that matter -- I could be thrown in jail for two years.

Before coming to NBC, I ran Valleywag, a Silicon Valley tech gossip rag. My painfully accurate reporting there discomfited countless bigwigs of tech, including Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, who told the Financial Times that I was the "single most tediously mean-spirited person" he'd ever met. (He objected to my noting that he'd run his cash-starved company down to $9 million in cash last October, a fact he never disputed but wished I hadn't published.)

Facebook investor Peter Thiel, who's had better luck as a backer of dotcoms than as a hedge-fund manager, was similarly discomfited by my reportage, declaring me "the Silicon Valley equivalent of al-Qaeda."

The thin-skinned titans of tech, in short, would love Sanchez's proposed law.

As would politicians themselves, LatinoPoliticsBlog.com notes, calling the bill an "assault" on free speech.

Sanchez and her advocates will likely argue that she has good intentions. The cyberbullying bill is named after Megan Meier, a St. Louis teenager who committed suicide after reading comments posted by Lori Drew, a neighborhood mom posing as a boy named "Josh."

Drew was acquitted in July on charges of wire fraud and other misdeeds, in a decision that drew praise from civil-liberties advocates. The judge in the case threw out a jury's guilty verdicts, and legal analysts have pointed out that the right way to pursue bullies like Drew is through civil charges, not criminal prosecution.

The alternative is a nightmarish world where citizens get prosecuted for speech.

Think that's laughable? Ask people who live in Missouri, where seven people have been charged with violating a cyberbullying law passed in 2008 -- including one person who emailed city hall to protest a real-estate development.

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