Best Intentions: Bad Things Happen When Pols Try to Play Psychologists

Watch out, all you anonymous blog posters who are so mean to Veronica O’Brien, Francis Slay, and Steve Gregali. Pretty soon, you might be prosecuted for your cyber insults.

A proposed new law would make it illegal in the City of St. Louis to harass someone over the Internet or other electronic communications, like texting. “Harassment” is defined in the bill as:

“To engage in a course of conduct that serves no legitimate purpose and would cause substantial emotional distress, and shall actually cause substantial emotional distress…”

In other words, hurt someone’s feelings.

The St. Louis legislation follows legislation passed recently in the cities of Florissant and Dardenne Prairie. The spark for all of this new Internet regulation by local municipalities is the suicide last week of 13-year-old Megan Meier of Dardenne Prairie.

The girl’s parents said she hanged herself after receiving mean Internet messages from an adult neighbor posing as a boy.

With Megan in mind, the St. Louis law, co-sponsored by Aldermanic President Lewis Reed and Alderman April Ford-Griffin, further defines harassment as “contact by a person over age eighteen with a person under the age of eighteen that would cause a reasonable parent to fear for the well-being of their minor child.”

A suicide by a child is always a tragic thing. They are also often done for reasons that we as adults see as tragically minor — boyfriends or girlfriends… bullies… zits.

As adults, we know what our mothers told us was indeed true: “This too shall pass.”

As educated adults we also know that the “reasons” for teen suicide is rarely the real reason at all. The real cause — and I’m not a psychologist here, but I used to date one and armed with that knowledge it seems to me — the real cause is mental illness — namely, clinical depression.

Again, I’m not a psychologist. But neither are aldermen. I do however spend a lot of time on the Internet. More than most, I would bet. I’d also bet I get more annoying, unsolicited e-mail than almost anyone you know. Today, including the mail snagged in my junk filter, I received 304. It was a slow day.

Most of that email was sent to me by someone trying to get me to do something: write a story about them, come to some event, help a foreigner transfer his millions of dollars, enlarge my penis.

Not once has an email caused me to do anything that I didn’t choose to do myself — except maybe LOL.

These reactionary lawmakers are putting the freedom of the Internet at risk in the name of preventing a tragedy that no law could have prevented.

The new crime of “cyber-harassment” consists of two basic parts (the bolded language is the most ridiculous):

An individual intends to harass, alarm, annoy, abuse, threaten, intimidate, torment or embarrass any other person by means of the transmission of electronic communication or knowingly permits an electronic communication to be transmitted from an electronic communication device under the person’s control using lewd, lascivious, etc… words, images or language; anonymously or repeatedly whether or not the conversation occurs; or threatening to inflict injury on the person or property of the person communicated with or any member of his or her household.

So if someone annoys a person with a text message or an anonymous blog posting using “lewd” language, even if the “victim” engages in the conversation, a crime has been committed.

Consider me both victim and offender.

Part Two:

An individual uses or allows the use of an electronic communications device under the person’s control to harass, alarm, annoy, abuse, threaten, intimidate, torment or embarrass any other person through the direct action of the individual or through the actions of a third party, which third party actions are instigated, initiated, prompted or brought about by the person’s communication.

So now if someone is inspired by my blog postings to go and annoy someone else (say a certain unpopular elected official) I can be charged for instigating the annoyance by my email or blog posting?! WFT?!

Bad things happen when legislators try to play psychologists.

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