That’s what draft Suffolk County Resolution No. 1390-2010 would do (some line breaks added):
“CYBER-BULLYING” shall mean
[(a)] engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts of abusive behavior over a period of time
[(b)] by communicating or causing a communication to be sent by mechanical or electronic means, posting statements on the internet or through a computer network.
[(c)] Acts of abusive behavior shall include, but not be limited to, taunting; threatening; intimidating; insulting; tormenting; humiliating; disseminating embarrassing or sexually explicit photographs, either actual or modified, of a minor; disseminating the private, personal or sexual information, either factual or false, of a minor; or sending hate mail....
No person shall engage in cyber-bullying against a minor [i.e., someone under the age of 18] in the County of Suffolk....
Any person who knowingly violates the provisions of this article shall be guilty of ... [a] misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to one year’s imprisonment.
So let’s see:
1. You post several items on your Web site about how some juvenile criminal is an awful person. You’re guilty of “repeatedly committing acts of abusive behavior” — namely, “insulting” ” — “against a minor” by “posting statements on the internet.”
2. A 17-year-old finds that her 17-year-old boyfriend is cheating on her. She sends him two e-mails calling him a “lying, cheating scum.” She’s guilty of repeatedly “insulting” the other person, and perhaps “sending hate mail.”
3. A 17-year-old e-mails her friend several times about her having had sex with a 17-year-old boy. She is guilty of “disseminating the private ... sexual information” (even though “factual”) “of a minor” — the fact that the boy had had sex with her.
4. A 17-year-old reveals to several of her friends, in separate e-mails, that her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend has a sexually transmitted disease. She is guilty of “disseminating the private, personal ... information” (even though “factual”) “of a minor.”
5. A 17-year-old corresponds with his friends about a classmate’s relatively little-known religious or political beliefs. Is he guilty of “disseminating the private, personal ... information” (even though “factual”) “of a minor”? Hard to tell, since “private, personal ... information” is not defined.
6. A 17-year-old posts several photos on her Facebook page, depicting a 17-year-old classmate doing something embarrassing (but not sexual) at a party. She is guilty of “disseminating embarrassing ... photographs” “of a minor.”
All these people would under the proposed ordinance be criminals, who could go to jail for up to a year because of their transgressions. Just what our legal system needs.
And, yes, I know that this was prompted by an incident in which a Suffolk County 17-year-old committed suicide after she had been bullied. But this hardly justifies turning a wide range of normal — and, in some instances, constitutionally protected — behavior into a crime, and a large set of normally behaving teenagers into criminals. If you want to outlaw a particular set of behavior that is indeed highly wrongful and highly dangerous, and you can define it in a way precise enough and narrow enough to be suitable for criminal punishment, that may well be sound. But this proposal is not sound.