Congress Must Protect Kids From Internet Bullies

Posted September 30, 2009 at 4:59pm

There is a fine line between protecting kids from online harassment and observing their right to free speech. This is why so many are turning their heads saying “not my problem— or “we can’t possibly make a law for that— when it comes to cyberbullying legislation. A chain e-mail? OK. Comments on an article on the Internet? OK. A ranting political blog? OK. Repeated, hostile and severe e-mails sent with an intent to harm? Not OK.

There is a point where freedom of speech can turn a treacherous curve. Last month, I read about Hail Ketchum-Wiggins, a 17-year-old girl living near my Congressional district in Southern California. While Hail was a senior at her high school, three varsity athletes posted a video on Facebook in which they described how and where they would rape Hail before disclosing the manner in which they would kill her. Everyone can get on Facebook. Not only was Hail embarrassed and tormented, she was in fear for her life and safety. In situations like these, most school authorities believe that social networks such as Facebook are “off-campus— activities that they have little authority to address (even if they wanted to).

Three years ago, a 13-year-old girl named Megan Meier also quietly suffered the abuse of a bully who tormented and emotionally harassed her, and then told her, “The world would be better off without you.— Megan eventually hanged herself in her bedroom closet. Later, it would be found that Lori Drew, 49, had posed as the teenage boy who wooed then rejected Megan. Most tragically, Megan’s story is not unique. In Florida, Jeff Johnston, 15, hanged himself by his bookbag strap in 2005, and in Vermont, Ryan Patrick Halligan, 13, hanged himself in 2003 — both victims of Internet harassment.

These are only brief examples of what is happening to kids across the nation. And what is happening to their perpetrators? Absolutely nothing. There are new crimes with new technology, yet our legal system simply hasn’t kept up with crimes like cyberbullying. Words that didn’t exist a couple years ago like “sexting— and “textual harassment— describe new ways people are using technology to hurt, harass and humiliate others. The absence of any type of punishment for cyberbullies shows exactly why we need new laws to address these crimes.

For those of us older than 30, it is difficult to comprehend why bullying on the Internet is so powerful to our young people. Today’s kids are so wired into their electronic social networks that they type more messages than they speak each day. Their virtual world is just as real as the “real world.— Cyberbullying is real, and it is more dangerous than we could have imagined.

Because of the anonymity and deception the Internet allows, cyberbullying is particularly menacing. Cyberbullying can have serious consequences and inflict lasting wounds upon young people. Studies have found that bullying can negatively affect the academic performance, self-esteem, and mental and physical health of children — and even lead to suicide or homicide.

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing to consider my legislation, the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, which will give prosecutors the ability to punish those who use electronic means to engage in bullying. Members of the committee heard testimony from witnesses who said they can no longer turn their heads and say, “It’s not our problem.— Some of the witnesses argued that prohibiting cyberbullying would be an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. However, I believe we can protect our right to free speech and protect victims of cyberbullying at the same time.

When communication on the Internet becomes serious, repeated and hostile and is made with an intent to harm, it becomes a crime. Many states have already enacted cyberbullying statues, but the rest need Congress to act. Prosecutors, in not just a few states but across the country, should have a tool at their disposal to allow them to punish criminals who are getting off scot-free. Our First Amendment gave us a world of opportunities. But our Founding Fathers had no idea what the Internet would do to the way we communicate.

Rep. Linda Sánchez (D) represents California’s 39th district.