Saturday, May 16, 2009

Disturbing Silence from the Watchdogs

I was chuckling yesterday over the Daily Sentinel's lament about the purported silence of the ACLU on a piece of legislation in Hawaii, of all places. As it turns out, there was no silence, as a reader pointed out that the ACLU of Hawaii had issued a press release on the bill last week.

Then I found something similar that made me stop laughing.

If you think that I'm just going to go on about how great the ACLU is, and gets a bum rap from a lot of clueless people....well, not this time. There is a disturbing silence from the venerable guardian of the First Amendment, as well as others, regarding a piece of federal legislation that seems to me to embody the old adage about the road to Hell being paved with good intentions.

The Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act (H.R. 1966) is a rather short little bill, introduced by California Rep. Linda Sanchez, and co-sponsored by 14 other members of Congress.

The bill is named in memory of the 13-year old Missouri teenager who killed herself after significant online abuse by instant messaging and a MySpace page in a fictitious name. The mother of a former friend was charged at the federal level, and convicted of several misdemeanors related to computer fraud.

The meat of the bill is basically one paragraph:
‘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.'
In other words, a lot of local bloggers could conceivably be prosecuted for online criticism of someone that causes "substantial emotional distress". To channel Ralph D'Andrea, that's crap.

The civil liberties implications of this are significant, and have generated quite a bit of traction in the blogosphere. However, the vast majority of those blogs leveling comment appear to come from a right wing point of view; perhaps this is a byproduct of the largely liberal conglomeration of House members who have lined up behind this legislative travesty.

I support several groups that focus on free speech and civil liberties issues, among them the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). These groups are all well represented in the sidebar of this blog, and all display considerable expertise in the area of protecting individual liberties, whether it be online, in public protest, or in our colleges and universities.

FIRE has been the only one of these three groups with a perceived stake in the issue to come out with position and reporting of any kind on the bill, or its' potential fallout.

Extensive searches of the ACLU and EFF websites show no analysis or action alerts on H.R. 1966. EFF posted some general comment last year on the constitutional viability of anti-cyberbullying legislation, but nothing specific to this bill. Why?

The silence on this issue is deafening from these champions of individual rights.

The most comprehensive MSM coverage of the issue comes, from all places, Fox News. They leveraged noted lawyer and blogger Eugene Volokh to comment on the legislation for what it is; not viable when exposed to the rarefied light of the First Amendment.

Could it be that the push from the Democratic left to enact such a flawed piece of legislation is causing ACLU and EFF to remain quietly on the sidelines, to appease a small bloc of legislators who could be counted on to support other pet projects?

Where is the remainder of the mainstream media regarding this? Where was the Sentinel when the perfect niche issue came to light for a conservative-leaning editorial board with significant disdain for the ACLU?

For me, the answer lines up this way; bad law is bad law, regardless of which side of the aisle or political spectrum it originates from. HR1966 is bad law. It needs to die a quick death in the House Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Sanchez is feeling the pressure, and tried in vain to defend her bill in a recent Huffington Post Op-Ed. This was swiftly countered with a very common sense and comprehensive assessment by MSNBC's Helena A.S. Popkin. When you invoke something like Columbine, and worse yet get it wrong, you know you're grabbing at straws.

As a paying member of both the ACLU and EFF, I expect an organizational position on HR1966 to be researched, developed, and published in short order. What appears to be some selective application of their respective mission statements needs to stop.

Have a good rest of your weekend.

No comments: