Monday, May 18, 2009

Vagueness and the Road to Power

This article regarding the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act brings up justifiable concerns for the possibility of using it to censor speech. The article is so well formed that I only need to bring up one addition: the only laws needed are laws that protect individual rights. If one chooses to associate with a person that aggravates one's existing psychological problems, then the fault lies with the person with the problems, not the associate. The only time an associate would be at fault (and thus legally and morally responsible) for harm is when an infringement of individual rights is involved.

But, to bring our knowledge out from the concrete level and turn it into a principle, this is a good example of how a *vague* law can give a politician(s) way more power than the law states it will give them. Such is accomplished by employing legal terminology that is either undefinable, insufficiently defined, or applies to different persons in different ways.

In this case, the article states, the offending passage is here:
Even Sanchez's attempt to define the term "cyberbullying" poses problems, said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.

"The bill defines it as 'using electronic means to support severe, repeated and hostile behavior,' but what does 'severe, hostile and repeated behavior' mean?" he asked.
Anyone can easily look up electronic and repeat for a definition that can be understood and employed by all in the exact same fashion, but, as the question states, what qualifies as "severe" and "hostile"? While one is able to come to an objective definition to be understood by all, these are concepts, when applied to behavior, denoting evaluation and therefore are employed differently by each person according to his own ideas, values, and standards.

To illustrate, imagine a football stadium where, currently, the majority of the spectators are loudly booing one of the teams. One person may evaluate this to be "hostile" behavior against the unfavored team while another person may merely evaluate it to be playful sportsmanship and a demonstration of team loyalty. One person may evaluate brushing one's teeth for an entire five minutes to be "severe" while the person engaging in such an act, plagued by worry, may evaluate it as a just barely sufficient amount of time. Many people can view the same phenomena, but the majority, if not all, will reach different evaluations of that same phenomena.

It is in this sense that this law being proposed is a nonobjective law, a law that is not clearly defined and delimited. Such a law is nearly impossible to follow. The only way a perpetrator will know he has broken such a law is...after he has broken it and is being prosecuted for it.

Even being careful not to offend, i.e., walking on eggshells is not enough to try and protect oneself from such a law worded like this. Even if one were to word an online criticism of another politician's proposal in the most polite way humanly possible, the politician being critiqued may take offense that they are being critiqued to at all and may be able to bring up legal charges. The only absolute protection is self-censorship.

If this law passes, people will be able to exercise their dictator fantasy by claiming to have had their feelings hurt.

1 comment:

Burgess Laughlin said...

You have written a very helpful article. It starts with a particular piece of proposed legislation and then exposes the underlying principles involved, thus making the lessons learned applicable far beyond this particular law.

> ". . . a nonobjective law, a law that is not clearly defined and delimited."

Dr. Harry Binswanger, in his article, "What is Objective Law?," presents an introduction to the nature of objective law.

That short text will be the subject of a two-week study group this summer, in Study Groups for Objectivists. It may be helpful for law students and intellectual activists.