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First Amendment Rights Watch: Criminalizing the Internet

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In the last few years as my work has increasingly integrated with the Internet, blogosphere and Netroots, I've been constantly reminded that there are a lot of great people out there -- but I've also been reminded that there are a number of really crazy, nasty, unhinged and generally bad people out there, too. The Internet's unique mix of interactivity, instant response and anonymity can really bring out the worst in people -- all you have to do is read the comments sections on many major blogs, both liberal and conservative, to know that there's a lot of hate out there.

 

However, the Internet is a terrifically democratizing force, and while most of us can't stand the haters who try to hijack this medium for their own sad agendas, any effort to criminalize speech in this medium is really unacceptable.

Unfortunately, such an effort is underway, headed by Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA). As Wired magazine notes, her bill, HR 1966, is called the "Cyberbullying Prevention Act" and includes this section:

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.

Look, I'm all for putting people in jail for violating the law, whether they violated it on the Internet or somewhere else. However, this bill is so broadly written as to be an affront to the First Amendment. Really, who is going to determine what "intent to coerce, intimidate or harass"? At times, I've felt intimidated and harassed by quasi-stalker-ish commenters and hate mailers. And I've certainly been the target of attempts to "coerce" - as has anyone who has read a blog post pushing a certain position. Should folks go to jail for that? I don't think so. 

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David Sirota is a full-time political journalist, best-selling author and nationally syndicated newspaper columnist living in Denver, Colorado. He blogs for Working Assets and the Denver Post's PoliticsWest website. He is a Senior Editor at In These Times magazine, which in 2006 received the Utne Independent Press Award for political coverage. His 2006 book, Hostile Takeover, was a New York Times bestseller, and is now out in paperback. He has been a guest on, among others, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and NPR. His writing, which draws on his (more...)
 

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