Friday, November 21, 2008

Is This the Face of the First Amendment?

Megan Meier had almost made it to her 14th birthday in 2006 when her mother found her hanging from a rope in her closet at their St. Charles County, MO home. About a month earlier, Megan had started communicating online with a boy who identified himself as Josh Evans. Megan, who suffered from attention deficit disorder and depression, has been described by her mother as “boy crazy.” Meeting Josh online proved fatal for Megan. The twist here is that Josh did not exist. So even when “Josh” sent Megan a message saying the world would be better off without her in it, someone else was behind the transmission. On trial now, charged with one count of conspiracy and three counts of accessing protected computers without authorization is Lori Drew, 49, the mother of one of Megan’s former friends. Drew is suspected of perpetrating the hoax which ultimately led to Megan’s suicide.

Is Drew responsible? Let the judicial process work through that, but the bigger issue is freedom of expression in cyberspace. Lawyers are arguing whether Drew violated the Computer Use and Fraud Act, which in part makes it a crime to use computers to cause damage that results in physical injury to any person. Death is not mentioned in the content of the Act, because back in 1994 when it was first created, no one anticipated how a computer could be used to cause someone to die. That was way before Facebook and My Space, and instant messaging was in its infancy. We didn’t get it yet. We do now.

Nowhere to be found in the reports and news analysis of the Megan Meier case is there any mention of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the U.S. Stay tuned; I suspect someone will start ranting about “freedom of speech” before the dust settles on Megan’s grave.

The First Amendment has been used to justify everything from crude poetry to white supremacist rhetoric to art exhibits featuring religious relics floating in urine. It could be argued that the most expansive and profitable Internet industry – pornography – owes its very existence to these 45 words:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
People use, mis-use and abuse their First Amendment rights in every way imaginable. Sometimes the Amendment is used for innocuous purposes – a couple of years ago, for example, a prisoner in Wisconsin said he had a First Amendment right to receive printouts of e-mail replies to his online personal ad.

Sometimes even highly respected institutions treat the First Amendment as a catch-all when justification for bad behavior is needed. Case in point: In 2002, the Boston Archdiocese asked a judge to dismiss the hundreds of sexual-abuse lawsuits against the church on First Amendment freedom-of-religion grounds.

In Greensboro, North Carolina, the University of North Carolina established “free speech and assembly areas,” two small outdoor areas where freedom of speech would be permitted. Two students involved in a peaceful protest to what they saw as a denial of their constituional rights were eventually disciplined by the school, but the charges were later dropped. You might wonder, if students cannot exercise free speech at a public university, who can safely use this freedom, and where? Not at Brigham Young University (a private school) – that’s for sure. In 2007 when the school scheduled Dick Cheney to speak at commencement ceremonies, a group of students organized a protest – in that university’s designated free speech zone. When their allotted two hour demonstration time was up, university employees confiscated their signs and attempted to intimidate them into disbanding. As you watch the following video about the BYU debacle, pay particular attention to the University president’s response to a student inquiry, at the very end:

First Amendment confusion and debate rages continually in our country, and now that we have the first black president about to move into the White House, fasten your seat belts. Things will get bumpy. They already are. Consider the third grade students riding on a Boise, Idaho school bus, chanting “ Assassinate Obama.” What about Idaho landowner Ken Germana who posted a sign on his property that promoted a “free public hanging” of the President-elect? Perhaps you saw reports of the two guys in West Hollywood who put up a Halloween display of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin hanging in effigy. Last week a Maine storeowner put up a sign asking customers to place bets on an Obama assassination.

All of the above-mentioned individuals are the beneficiaries of our forefathers’ good intentions. Somehow it seems that none of those gentlemen could have anticipated any such events or uses of their good intentions, but their 45 words remain in place, just the same. At the same moment all of this takes place, the gay marriage conundrum (see the November 7 Greenberg Rants posting) rages on. After the state of California took the unprecedented step of altering its constitution to ban gay marriage, hundreds of thousands of Americans coast to coast took advantage of their constitutional right of the people peaceably to assemble. It was a glorious reaffirmation of the will of the American citizenry. After those gatherings across the country, it was announced this week that the California Supreme Court has agreed to hear challenges to Proposition 8.

Your constitutionally-ensured freedom is working hard for you. Your rights are unshakably intact. You can speak. You can protest. You can assemble. You can be civilly disobedient. You can. You absolutely can. But at the same time, so can those whose agendas may be more narrowly focused than yours. The Ku Klux Klan. Those who would promote assassinating the President-elect. Those who would gather in the name of intolerance. An even those whose agenda is simply to humiliate a little girl on the Internet. And even when she ends up hanging by a rope in her closet.

Freedom is a precious thing. It is easily abused, and in some cases easily lost. Most of all, it comes with huge responsibilities. Technology stole our precious right to privacy in the blink of an eye. We have to work hard to hold on to our freedom of expression, even if it means that others may express thoughts that taunt us, anger us or endanger us.

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