The New York Times reports today on two interesting stories related to restrictions of Internet speech. In both, the Courts and/or state lawmakers are facing new issues related to the increasing popularity of blogs and social networking sites. Such issues may force these bodies to act in ways that could affect people’s rights in relation to these services.
The first article arises out of an incident where three women allegedly created a false MySpace identity in order to communicate with a 13-year-old girl in Missouri. The messages sent to the girl eventually became more and more cruel to the point of what many are now calling harassment. These messages eventually led to the 13-year-old girl committing suicide.
No charges were pressed against the women who created the fraudulent ID, as the current laws do not address the type of on-line harassment allegedly perpetrated by these women. In a somewhat interesting turn, the address and phone number of one of the women allegedly responsible has been posted on the Internet, leading to many harassing her for her alleged actions. The Governor of Missouri has created a committee to address this type of Internet harassment, and said committee is set to submit a bill in January.
In the second article, the issue of free speech on the Internet comes up once again. In this instance the Court has issued an Order that a man discontinue his Internet postings “about his wife and their marriage pending a [divorce] hearing next month.” William Krasnansky has created a blog (lookatmypugs.livejournal.com) with “a fictionalized account of [his] marriage.” The author claims that this Order constitutes a prior restraint and violates his First Amendment rights. In direct defiance of the Order, he is continuing to post to the site.
According to the article, many Constitutional Law experts feel that the Order issued is overbroad and can not survive a First Amendment challenge. An issue still exists though as to how fictional the work may be; such statements that the account is “fictional” still may not be sufficient “if the court found that readers were likely to perceive the postings as factual statements about a real person and if the statements were false.” Even if the account is labeled not to be “fictional”, experts state that typical remedy in such a case would be damages and not an injunction as the Court here has ordered.
In both articles, issues have been raised as to how to properly regulate alleged harassment on the Internet as existing laws do not quite cover this area yet. Even in just these two cases, the issue of harassment may appear more clear cut than in the other; to attempt to expand a definition and create standards that can apply to all such instances will indeed be a difficult task. While states struggle with determining these standards, the issues remain for those with blogs as to what they can safely post and for those on social networking sites as to what constitutes harassment and what protections are available in events of perceived harassment. If and when new standards are established, more guidelines will be available, but these standards will almost certainly affect how people use these services; if people’s rights are affected too severely by these new standards, many may cease or limit their use of these tools, greatly decreasing the benefits such blogs and social networking sites provide to their readers and users. The question then becomes: at what cost to people’s rights and access to these social networking tools do we protect others from perceived Internet harassment?