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Home » Rockies » Idaho » Boise » Dear Rep. Hartgen: the First Amendment Applies Online, Too
Maybe Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, needs to just stay away from computers. First, after the election but before the legislature was even in session, Hartgen garnered national attention by suggesting that anonymous blogging should be made illegal. "After receiving many thoughts and submissions on that I decided not to introduce that," he said. "I think people blogged about that almost everywhere from between Maine to Hawaii." Now, after dropping that idea amid general ridicule, he is proposing extending existing telephone harassment laws to cover online communication including e-mails, text messages and posting comments on Web sites.

Dear Rep. Hartgen: the First Amendment Applies Online, Too

Maybe Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, needs to just stay away from computers.

First, after the election but before the legislature was even in session, he garnered national attention by suggesting that anonymous blogging should be made illegal. According to Jared Hopkins in the Magic Valley Times- News, Hartgen told the Idaho House State Affairs Committee that he had dropped that effort because too many people made fun of him. “After receiving many thoughts and submissions on that I decided not to introduce that,” he said. “I think people blogged about that almost everywhere from between Maine to Hawaii.”

Now, after dropping that idea amid general ridicule, Hartgen is proposing extending existing telephone harassment laws to cover online communication including e-mails, text messages and posting comments on Web sites. Repeat offenders could face five years in prison.

This is in response to the Megan Meier case, where Lori Drew’s impersonation of a teenage boy led Meier to kill herself. At least 13 states — Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Washington — have already passed laws against cyberbullying, and several other states are considering it, according to the Washington Post.

Because this is one-on-one communication, and because it extends existing harassment laws, it would not impinge on people’s First Amendment protections of free speech, said Hartgen, a former newspaper publisher, though some people posting comments on Idaho newspaper web sites don’t buy this argument.

(How this is different from 2006’s HB750 – which “provides that an act of [student] harassment, intimidation or bullying may also be committed through the use of a land line, car phone or wireless telephone or through the use of data or computer software that is accessed through a computer, computer system or computer network” – is not clear. )

Moreover, because the Internet transcends state boundaries, the same limitations that applied to Hartgen’s plan to ban anonymous blogging apply to his plan to ban Internet harassment.

1. The Idaho state legislature, of course, covers only Idaho. So what would be covered by this law? Harassers based in Idaho? Victims based in Idaho? Sites based in Idaho?

2. Let’s say it’s harassers or victims based in Idaho. Okay. How does a site know that someone’s from Idaho? Would all sites have to institute geographical locations? How would one enforce that?

3. Let’s say it’s sites based in Idaho. Okay. What about people posting to the site who aren’t from Idaho? Are they also held to this law?

4. How will this be checked? What stops someone from using a fake name? If there’s a geographical component, how will *that* be checked?

5. Who’s going to do the checking? Who’s going to do the enforcing, whether it’s of the bloggers or the sites? If someone’s not using their real name, how will the long arm of the law track them down in the first place? How’s this all going to be paid for?

The State Affairs committee agreed to hear the bill; at this point, it goes back to the committee, which will hear public testimony on it. If it passes the committee, it will go to the House for voting, then to the Senate State Affairs committee for more public testimony, then if it passes there, to the Senate, and then to the Governor if it passes all those hurdles before the Legislature’s session end.

The amusing part was apparently watching a bunch of Idaho 60-somethings (plus Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, who really should know better) try to decide how to describe such sites. Originally Hartgen’s bill had listed Facebook, MySpace, and so on by name, but some legislators were concerned about calling them out specifically. However, they didn’t know what to call them generically until Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa – who’s 34 and on Facebook – explained to the committee they were called “social networking sites.” Apparently, however, nobody else had heard the term “cyberbullying.”

There is one reassuring aspect – Hartgen said politicians would still be “fair game.”

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One comment

  1. It is just going to be a question of time, folks. Just a question of time…