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Burriss on the Media: Cyber-Bullying


By Larry Burriss, PhD


Murfreesboro, TN – Remember when "bullying" used to mean pushing, shoving and tripping? Then the definition was expanded to include verbal abuse.

Now, under Tennessee's new cyber-bullying law, you could go to jail if you post an image that a viewer finds offensive or causes emotional distress. And let's note a few things here.

The image doesn't necessarily have to be sexual in nature. It could be any image. A political cartoon, for example.

The person who views the image doesn't have to be the intended target. It could be anyone who views the image and finds it offensive or causes them emotional distress.

And the law seems to include anyone who posts an embarrassing picture. An individual, or a newspaper or a broadcast station. Nor do you need to have intended the image be hurtful. The fact that someone says they are hurt or offended or distressed is enough to send you to prison.

Way back in 1863, in the Hicklin Decision, an English court said that if any single passage in a book might harm anyone, then it could be declared harmful to everyone, and thus banned. In other words, if material was harmful to children, then it was also deemed inappropriate for adults.

The Hicklin Decision has been superseded, and in the United States there are already a number of laws regulating harmful speech, particularly on the Internet.

Certainly no one is condoning harassment, but the new law means you could be prosecuted if religious group could claim they are offended by your message, or if members of a political party claim they are intimidated by your editorial cartoon.

Now Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper is being asked to decide if the law violates the United States' Constitution.

Over though years we've seen notions of political correctness run amuck, as almost any group you can think of has forced changes in language by claiming they are offended by certain words and phrases.

Now, the Tennessee legislature has apparently criminalized politically incorrect speech. And almost anything you say or write can probably send you to prison.

I'm Larry Burriss.