The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution clearly states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
However, that hasn’t stopped state and federal officials to creatively redefine what “freedom of speech” means. Of late there have been multiple attempts  to legislate digital censorship, with government officials looking to decide what forms of online speech they feel aren’t okay and make them illegal.
The latest effort on this front comes from four Democratic New York state senators, who have published a report entiteld “Cyberbullying: A Report on Bullying in a Digital Age”. In that report, Sen. Jeff Klein, Diane Savino, David Carlucci, and David Valesky argue that the First Amendment has been long misinterpreted by politicians and courts and really means that free speech is a privilege (not a right), which can be taken away.
Proponents of a more refined First Amendment argue that this freedom should be treated not as a right but as a privilege — a special entitlement granted by the state on a conditional basis that can be revoked if it is ever abused or maltreated.
The argument that free speech was not intended as a protected right seems rather baffling given that the First Amendment is part of the “Bill of Rights.”
Of course they argue that state politicians should be tasked with creating laws of what they feel constitutes “abuse” of free speech and grounds for censorship. According to their full report, possible “abusive” speech that they feel should be banned includes:
1. Leaving hurtful messages online:
“LEAVING IMPROPER MESSAGES ON ONLINE MESSAGE BOARDS OR SENDING HURTFUL AND DAMAGING MESSAGES TO OTHERS;”
2. Flaming people online:
“”FLAMING” (HURTFUL, CRUEL, AND OFTENTIMES INTIMIDATING MESSAGES INTENDED TO INFLAME, INSIGHT, OR ENRAGE);”
3. “Happy slapping” (a 2005 meme that the befuddled Senators appear to mistake for a current problem):
“”HAPPY SLAPPING” (RECORDING PHYSICAL ASSAULTS ON MOBILE PHONES OR DIGITAL CAMERAS, THEN DISTRIBUTING THEM TO OTHERS);”
4. Trolling online:
“”TROLLING” (DELIBERATELY AND DECEITFULLY POSTING INFORMATION TO ENTICE GENUINELY HELPFUL PEOPLE TO RESPOND (OFTEN EMOTIONALLY), OFTEN DONE TO PROVOKE OTHERS);”
5. Exclusion of people:
“EXCLUSION (INTENTIONALLY AND CRUELLY EXCLUDING SOMEONE FROM AN ONLINE GROUP).”
Such legislation are perceived by some as an overreaction of extreme recent incidents of cyberbullying. However, it’s hard to avoid the possibility that such censorship couldn’t be abused by politicians to silence political rivals.
After all, if you can put someone in speech for “trolling” and “leaving hurtful messages on online message boards”, does that mean ruling politicians can imprison those who criticize them online? Clearly that’s how officials in other countries like China have used similar laws. Is the U.S. headed down a similar road?
The Senators have used their report to draft a proposed law.
Under the proposed law, “offensive” speech would become constitute Third-Degree Stalking, a Class A Misdemeanor. And if someone commits suicide due to online harassment — or “bullycide” as the report calls it — the harassers can be charged with Second-Degree Manslaughter, a Class C Felony.
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