Cyberbullies & Free Speech

A cyberbully, acting under the cloak of anonymity, has the potential to do grievous harm to an individual.

So what should society do about it?

A bill was recently proposed in New York State that would require website administrators to remove any comments posted on their web site by an anonymous poster unless the poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post and confirms that his or her IP address, legal name, and home address are accurate.

The proposed bill, The Internet Protection Act (A.8688/S.6779), also would require web site administrators to have a contact number or e-mail address posted for such removal requests, clearly visible in any sections where comments are posted.

The bill is co-sponsored by two Republicans, Assemblyman Dean Murray and Sen. Thomas O’Mara. Murray says he was a target of cyberbullying during his 2010 re-election campaign. An anonymous source reportedly alleged that Murray had committed acts of violence towards his ex-wife and that his son, who was in the military at the time, was in hiding because he was being abused.

Fiddling with free speech rights is certainly tempting when one ponders the cowardly cyberbully, who intentionally uses a computer like an unseen sniper to inflict harm.  In recent years, there have been several reported cases of  teen suicides allegedly precipitated by cyberbullying.

However, history shows that efforts to protect victims often backfire as a result of unintended and unforeseen consequences.  It is not inconceivable that the Internet Protection Act could be used to further harass targets and to prevent them from speaking out about abuse for fear of reprisal.

The underlying issue is whether Americans should have the right to “publish” information anonymously and whether this right is outweighed by the target’s need to easily “out” a cyberbully.

The issue of anonymous publication was addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm’n, 514 U.S. 344 (1995). The Court upheld the right of a citizen to post anonymous leaflets in an election campaign. The Court said an individual may seek anonymity for reasons of fear of economic or official retaliation, concern about social ostracism or merely because s/he desires to preserve his or her privacy.  “Whatever the motivation may be…the interest in having anonymous works enter the marketplace of ideas unquestionably outweighs any public interest in requiring disclosure as a condition of entry,” the Court said.

Perhaps the most famous U.S. case involving freedom of the press was the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger, a printer who refused to reveal the anonymous authors of published attacks on the Crown Governor of New York. When the Governor and his council could not discover the identity of the authors, they prosecuted Zenger for seditious libel.  Zenger’s lawyer, Alexander Hamilton, successfully argued the proposition that the truth is an absolute defense against libel. The jury returned a verdict of “not guilty.”

A bill such as the Internet Protection Act, which affects a basic American right, certainly should be weighed against the  legal avenues that currently exist to address cyberbullying.  And is this really the best, most narrowly drawn approach to the problem of cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying may include activity that falls within various federal, state or local criminal statutes, such as criminal harassment.

In 2011,  an attorney who was a senior official of a Rhode Island teachers union was criminally prosecuted and convicted of a misdemeanor charge of cyber-stalking after  he posted anonymous criticisms of a politician who was running for office. The politician lost his reelection bid and his wife testified during the trial that he suffered rising blood pressure and lost weight because of the stress of the anonymous e-mails. The teacher’s union official was fined $100.

Cyberbullying may also involve a civil issue, such as libel. A determined private party may be able to ascertain a cyberbully’s identity in a civil case through  “John Doe” subpoenas to the web site and the internet service provider.

Despite it’s problems, the proposed Internet Protection Act is reportedly supported by 23 of the 49 New York Assembly Republicans, plus one Independent and one Democrat.

The Cyberbullying Research Center defines cyberbullying as “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices.”