New crime: Insulting a minor

In response to the suicide of a 17-year-old girl who’d been taunted on social networking sites, a New York county would make it a crime to repeatedly insult a minor, writes lawblogger Eugene Volokh. Bad idea.

Under Suffolk County Resolution No. 1390–2010, cyber-bullying includes: “taunting; threatening; intimidating; insulting; tormenting; humiliating; disseminating embarrassing or sexually explicit photographs, either actual or modified, of a minor; disseminating the private, personal or sexual information, either factual or false, of a minor; or sending hate mail….”

Volokh, a UCLA law professor, comes up with some examples:

1. You post several items on your Web site about how some juvenile criminal is an awful person. You’re guilty of “repeatedly committing acts of abusive behavior” — namely, “insulting” ” — “against a minor” by “posting statements on the internet.”

2. A 17-year-old finds that her 17-year-old boyfriend is cheating on her. She sends him two e-mails calling him a “lying, cheating scum.” She’s guilty of repeatedly “insulting” the other person, and perhaps “sending hate mail.”

3. A 17-year-old e-mails her friend several times about her having had sex with a 17-year-old boy. She is guilty of “disseminating the private … sexual information” (even though “factual”) “of a minor” — the fact that the boy had had sex with her.

The suicide of Alexis Pilkington doesn’t justify “turning a wide range of normal — and, in some instances, constitutionally protected — behavior into a crime,” argues Volokh. The law must be written much more precisely and narrowly.