UPDATED 21:07 EST / APRIL 30 2009

House Democrats Seek to Outlaw Distressing Speech Online

image Is it time to revive the Blue Ribbon campaign? If a bill highlighted over at the Volokh Conspiracy blog today gains any traction, we might just need to do that. The bill is proposed by Representative Linda T. Sanchez, a Democrat from California, and co-sponsored by 14 others aims to halt and make a felony the act of “using blogs, the Web, etc to cause substantial emotional distress through ‘severe, repeated and hostile’ speech.”

Here’s the salient part of the bill’s text:

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….

["Communication"] means the electronic transmission, between or among points specified by the user, of information of the user’s choosing, without change in the form or content of the information as sent and received; …

["Electronic means"] means any equipment dependent on electrical power to access an information service, including email, instant messaging, blogs, websites, telephones, and text messages.

It isn’t difficult to come up with a number of imaginary instances where this can be abused to simply censor or punish those with whom you may not like.  Obviously, the intent is to create an anti-cyber-bullying law here, but the effect will be much worse. 

Eugene Volokh outlines a number of very plausible worst case scenarios for us:

image1 – 3) All Political Blogging. These reasons all have to do with journalists, be they print or blog, repeatedly beat blogging a particular issue or about a particular politician. Shaming a politician to vote a certain way by repeatedly blogging about how repulsive or repugnant it might be to vote a way I disagree with – this could be determined to be causing emotional distress through repeated and hostile speech.

4-5) Customer Service Fail. You get screwed by a company, and you blog the process, and threaten to sue or take some sort of civil retribution against the company.  Volokh says that is “transmitting a communication with the intent to coerce, using electronic means "to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior." Result: I am a felon, if my behavior is "severe."

6) Your Cheating Heart. Blogging about a bad breakup, perhaps lashing out at the person in a non-violently threatening way (“I hope you feel like crap over this” or what have you), well that’s felonious behavior.

This is a ridiculous law, and it’s clearly unconstitutional.

Here’s a list of the culprits in what they hoped would be a good PR move (let’s make it a bad PR move – before it’s illegal):

Ms. LINDA T. SANCHEZ of California (D)
Ms. KAPTUR of the Ohio 9th District (D)
Mr. YARMUTH of the Kentucky 3rd District (D)
Ms. ROYBAL-ALLARD of the California 34th District (D)
Mrs. CAPPS of the California 23rd (D)
Mr. BISHOP of New York (D)
Mr. BRALEY of Iowa 1st (D)
Mr. GRIJALVA of the Arizona 7th District (D)
Mr. HARE of the 17th Illinois District (D)
Mr. HIGGINS of the 27th New York District (D)
Mr. CLAY of the 1st Missouri District (D)
Mr. SARBANES of the Maryland 3rd District (D)
Mr. DAVIS of the Illinois 7th District (D)
Mr. COURTNEY of the Connecticut 2nd District (D)
Mr. KIRK of the Illinois 10th District (R)

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