Linda Sánchez

Congress Should Protect Cyberbully Victims - Sept. 30, 2009

Linda Sánchez
September 30, 2009— Washington, D.C.
Judiciary Subcommittee hearing
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Rep. Linda Sanchez testified before a Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on her bill, H.R. 1966, the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, and why Congress should act to protect victims who are bullied online.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member Gohmert, for allowing me the opportunity to testify today about this piece of legislation. I am pleased to be here talking about the critical issue of child online safety because it is a relatively new form for Congress to be grappling with.

When I was first elected to Congress, I held a series of meetings with local school superintendents and law enforcement leaders to learn more about the challenges that they face in keeping kids in school and on the right track to becoming productive citizens. And, unfortunately, I heard a recurring theme during this series of meetings, and that is that bullying isn't a harmless prank or some kind of right of passage; it is dangerous, both physically and mentally, for students.

Bullying leads to things like poor school performance, absences from school, or even dropping out of school altogether. The prospect of assault and harassment can lead a child to join a gang for protection. Not only can bullying cause physical injuries in the form of wounds, bruises, and broken bones, but it can also lead to depression and even suicide.

That is why I have been working to change Federal law so that schools can use Federal funds to address and prevent bullying and harassment. But over the last several years, I have learned that that approach isn't going to be enough, because bullying has gone electronic. It occurs in text messages and G-chat, on Facebook and MySpace, on cell phones and on the Internet. This literally means that kids can be bullied any hour of the day and night and even in their own homes, which is a marked contrast to the bullies of yesterday that could only bully on the playground.

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 more real to them than the so-called ``real world'' is. For those of us over 30, this can be difficult to comprehend, so I want to give you an example to illustrate the problem.

Imagine, if you would, in our day when we went to school, a student brought out a jumbo-size TV into the school quad and played for the entire student body a videotape in which he threatened and harassed a second student. By the end of the day, everyone--and I mean everyone--would have seen or heard about it. Well, that is exactly what cyberbullying is.

Because of the anonymity and deception in the Internet, this form of bullying is particularly dangerous. If Bobby posts a video--and I don't mean the Chairman--on his Facebook page that harasses and threatens to rape and kill Ashley, that video isn't private. It is not buried on Bobby's profile page somewhere. It is public. It appears when any of Bobby's Facebook friends log in, right up there in front of their homepage so they can't miss it. And this story isn't just hypothetical. It happened to a brave young woman named Hail Ketchum-Wiggins, who lives in southern California near my congressional district.

Similar bullying incidents are happening every day to young people across our Nation. Cyberbullying is always mean, ill-mannered, and cruel, but some cyberbullying is so harmful that it rises to the level of criminal behavior.

My bill, the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act,'' is named to honor a young woman who was a victim of such criminal behavior. Three years ago, 13-year-old Megan Meier of Missouri hanged herself after being tormented and harassed by her 15-year-old MySpace friendJosh.'' Josh told her, among other things, ``The world would be better off without you.''

Eventually, Megan's family learned that ``Josh'' was really a creation of Lori Drew, the parent of one of her classmates. However, local prosecutors in Missouri couldn't bring charges against Lori Drew because, at the time, Missouri had no law to punish that kind of cruelty. A Federal prosecutor in a similar bind got creative and charged Drew with computer fraud. And even though a jury convicted her, a judge throughout the conviction. The result is that Drew, an adult and one who should have been setting an example of good behavior, will never be punished for her outrageous behavior toward her 13-year-old victim, Megan.

These are just a few brief examples of why Congress needs to address new crimes like cyberbullying. Words that didn't even exist a couple years ago, including sexting'' andtextual harassment,'' describe the new ways that people use technology to hurt, harass, and humiliate others. When these behaviors become serious, repeated, and hostile, we can no longer ignore them and turn a blind eye.

While Missouri has since enacted a cyberbullying statute, the children of other States are waiting for Congress to act. That is why I am grateful that the Committee is considering the ``Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act.''

Before I conclude, I do want to acknowledge how difficult it is to craft a prohibition on cyberbullying that is consistent with the Constitution. But I believe that, working together for the sake of our children, we can and must do so.

The Supreme Court has already recognized that some regulation of speech is consistent with the first amendment. For example, the Court has approved restrictions on true threats, obscenities, and some commercial speech. But it has been more hostile to attempts to limit political speech.

I don't intend anything in the ``Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act'' to override Supreme Court jurisprudence. Instead, I want the law to be able to distinguish between an annoying chain mail, a righteously angry political blog post, or a miffed text to an ex-boyfriend, all of which should remain legal. But serious, repeated, and hostile communications made with the intent to harm are different. When the latter rises to a criminal level, as it did in the case of Lori Drew, prosecutors should have a tool at their disposal to allow them to punish the perpetrator.

I believe that we can protect our right to free speech and protect victims of cyberbullying at the same time. And I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to do so. I thank you for the opportunity to testify today and hope that you will join me in supporting that legislation.

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