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Protecting Victims, Preserving Freedoms

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If you were walking down the street and saw someone harassing a child, would you just walk by and look the other way? If that person was telling the child the world would be better off if they just killed themselves, would you ignore it?

This is what is happening on the internet except it is more painful, and can be more abusive because of the faceless anonymity the web provides. Bullies are using technology in ways we could not have imagined only years ago, and studies show that outdated and erroneous beliefs that bullying is "harmless" downplay its true seriousness.

Laws criminalize similar behavior when it takes place in person, but not online. In fact, we have laws criminalizing stalking, sexual harassment, identity theft and more when it takes place in person and online. All of these actions have consequences. But there is one serious online offense that has no penalty -- cyberbullying. Do we not think it is as serious because it takes place in cyberspace and not face to face?

Missouri already has a law that criminalizes cyberbullying, but cyberbullying isn't just happening in one state. It's happening everywhere and it follows kids home -- occurring at any hour of the day or night. Cyberbullying is hurtful enough and affecting kids enough that its victims have turned to suicide or violence just to make it stop. Should we just ignore it? Pass it off as simple child's play?

When so-called child's play turns hostile and a child becomes a victim, it is time to act. Victims of cyberbullying do not choose to participate. Rather than build character, bullying can cause children to become anxious, fearful, unhappy, and even cause them to be physically sick. A young person exposed to repeated, severe and hostile bullying online is deserving of protections because bullying puts them at risk for depression and suicide. According to a study by the United States Secret Service, being bullied is a risk factor for perpetrators of school violence, such as the kind that was unleashed with tragic results at Columbine High School in Colorado.

When so-called free speech leads to bullies having free-reign to threaten kids, it is time to act. The Supreme Court recognizes that in some instances words can be harmful. For example, you cannot falsely yell "FIRE" in a crowded theater. If you say it even once you can be held liable. Yet, you can repeatedly emotionally abuse someone with words, pictures, and false impressions online and get away scot-free.

The Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act would criminalize bullying like this when perpetrators hide behind the emboldening anonymity of the web. Severe online bullying must have consequences.

Current Supreme Court jurisprudence already recognizes some reasonable regulation of speech is consistent with the First Amendment. For example, the Court has found that true threats, commercial speech, slander, and libel can be reasonably restricted consistent with the Constitution. Slander and libel law provide for different standards when the injured party is a public official or private person, and nothing in the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act attempts to override that principle. Instead, the Act would give judges and juries discretion to recognize the difference between an annoying chain email, a righteously angry political blog post, or a miffed text to an ex-boyfriend and serious, repeated, hostile communications made with the intent to harm. I consulted with a variety of experts and law professors in crafting this bill to preserve our American freedom of speech and protect victims of cyberbullying.

Congress has no interest in censoring speech and it will not do so if it passes this bill. Put simply, this legislation would be used as a tool for a judge and jury to determine whether there is significant evidence to prove that a person "cyberbullied" another. That is: did they have the required intent, did they use electronic means of communication, and was the communication severe, hostile, and repeated. So -- bloggers, emailers, texters, spiteful exes, and those who have blogged against this bill have no fear - your words are still protected under the same American values.

But the internet should not be the last refuge of scoundrels who use its anonymity to abuse, harass, and bully our children.

Congresswoman Linda T. Sánchez represents the 39th Congressional District of California.

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