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1 October, 2009 By Rev. Ted Pike

The House Subcommittee hearing today on two "anti-cyberbullying" bills went very poorly for the Anti-Defamation League, architect of these bills, and their two primary sponsors, Rep. Linda Sanchez and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Sanchez sponsored the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, HR 1966, and Wasserman Schultz the AWARE Act (Adolescent Web Awareness Requires Education), HR 3630. AWARE is meant to facilitate the cyberbullying act's pro-homosexual educational program in America's public school system.

The hearing began with a strong statement by Rep. Louis Gohmert (the only Republican Judiciary member present) that he endured much bullying as an undersized boy and has only empathy for any young person bullied on the schoolyard or in cyberspace. Yet, he said, cyberbullying is a symptom of a larger problem of lack of values among America's youth. Such moral deficiency, he said, should be addressed on the local levels -- not by federalizing an already "overcriminalized" justice system. Gohmert said the cyberbullying bill encroaches on protected speech. "Do we need $125 million of Chinese money" (the five-year cost of AWARE) for the federal government to attempt to solve what should be dealt with through education on the grassroots level?

Sanchez and Wassermann Schultz argued that cyberbullying of teens is a national crisis that can only be solved through federal criminalization and educational funding through the Department of Justice. They were followed by Professor Robert O'Neill, veteran of 47 years of teaching Constitutional law. He thought it "worth a try," considering the seriousness of the cyberbullying problem, to broaden unprotected speech under HR 1966 to include "intentional infliction of emotional distress" through internet communication. But he felt a very high bar of truth (higher than the bill provides) should be required, to establish that real, demonstrable trauma had occurred. O'Neill was followed by Judi Westberg Warren, director of Web Wise Kids, an internet advocacy group. She supports federal funding through AWARE, plus massive private funding.

Trial lawyer and free speech authority Harvey Silverglate spoke next. In powerful and compelling language, he said the cyberbullying bill is extremely vague, impinging on free speech. In his book The Shadow University he documents how thousands of college students are already harassed and intimidated by college "speech crime" codes. He said such hate law terms as "intimidation," "emotional distress," and "harassment" are so vague they will criminalize annoying speech and deter speech which should be protected. He said true harassment is already amply protected under state and common law. The cyberbullying bill, he asserted, would criminalize existing torte law and federalize state law and so confuse citizens that they would be reluctant to say anything risky on the internet or anywhere else.

Silverglate's excellent objections were followed by commonsense reasoning from Nancy Willard, director of The Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, another internet advocacy organization. She said every author of a book about cyberbullying opposes HR 1966. She described the cyberbullying bill as epitomizing the "techno panic" of liberal politicians who want to pass more speech-threatening legislation before the actual problem is fully elucidated. Like Gohmert and Silverglate, she encouraged local private educational solutions. The majority of teens, she stressed, use the internet responsibly.

The last witness was John Palfrey of Harvard Law School, chair of the Internet Safety Task Force and co-author of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. He also said the solution is not in federal criminalization of cyberbullying but lies with local educational programs, teachers and parents.

A very lively question-and-answer period ensued between Chairman Bobby Scott and these authorities. The effect of their erudite objections and agreement was to virtually exclude from the discussion Reps. Sanchez and Wassermann Schultz, sponsors of the bills. Even federal hate bill supporter Scott expressed repeated concern that the cyberbullying bill, in its present configuration, falls short of passing Constitutional muster.

In fact, Professor O'Neill—who initially favored the bill—by the end clearly agreed that the Megan Meier cyberbullying bill, HR 1966, lacks legislative viability.

We Changed History!

Today's hearing was clearly a victory for free speech, made possible by divine intervention and YOUR phone calls this week, which lit a fire under Judiciary Republicans. Especially important were your last-minute warnings against AWARE and its danger as the educational "enforcer" of the cyberbullying bill throughout America's public education over the next five years. Calls were heavy against all four new hate bills on Monday. Such calling has continued, especially against AWARE; it has saturated offices such as that of Rep. Judiciary minority head Lamar Smith.

Without your intense activism in response to my weekend emergency alert, this hearing might have ended as dismally as the ENDA hearing last week in the Committee on Education and Labor, with only one Republican speaking out against it. But several days of vigorous encouragement undoubtedly stimulated Gohmert and the Republicans to marshal opposition and summon favored expert witnesses. For a change, advocates of free speech were on the offensive!

This very encouraging development dovetails with possible abandonment of the previously scheduled Safe Schools Improvement Act, HR 2262, which would criminalize "persistent or persuasive" criticism of homosexuality in the public schools as "violence." It may be that ADL concocted AWARE, introduced last Wednesday to deliver pro-homosexual indoctrination in a less threatening way. But after today, AWARE also may be in trouble.

Will HR 1966 and HR 3630 continue forward to markup? Probably. But the precedent established by today's rout of the Democrats may give Republicans opportunity to demand significant compromises that could water down or even largely neutralize HR 1966's threat to free speech.

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Ted, today - photo: John Pike, October 2019
Mail: P.O. Box 828, Clackamas, OR 97015
Email: Rev. Ted Pike

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