Rhode Island attorney general seeks to curb freedom of speech

Rhode Island attorney general seeks to curb freedom of speech

The Rhode Island attorney general wants a broad ban on hostile social media posts. As the Cato Institute’s Walter Olson notes,

Social media posts … that cause someone’s online embarrassment or insult, would become crimes under a set of bills being advanced by Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin.” One of the bills “would target a wide range of social media activity that makes people ‘feel … frightened,” or “intimidated.’” so long as it had been “made with the intent to cause emotional distress and be expected to cause distress in a ‘reasonable person.’” While previous “cyber-bullying” legislation required a pattern of conduct, “someone could be prosecuted under the new Kilmartin bill for a single post if at least two others pile on with ‘separate non-continuous acts of unconsented contact” with the victim.’” — meaning that the trigger for jail time over speech could be the actions of other persons. [Providence Journal] Two years ago the New York high court struck down an overbroad ban on so-called cyber-bullying.

As I noted earlier regarding similar proposed federal “cyberbullying” legislation, under such legislation, outspoken critics of injustice could be prosecuted for their persistence in condemning wrongdoing. Thus:

[A] blogger like Emile Zola, the courageous writer who exposed an anti-semitic witchhunt a century ago in the infamous Dreyfus Affair through his repeated and “vehement public” denunciations of public officials, would be subject to prosecution. His “severe, repeated, and hostile” denunciations resulted in many public figures being discredited and removed from office, which no doubt caused them “substantial emotional distress.”

As a student at the University of Virginia in November 1990, I witnessed a four-hour long speech by a racist, anti-semitic demagogue from the Nation of Islam. When no one else would do so, perhaps for fear of physical retaliation, I and my friends Arshad and David repeatedly and publicly denounced the speech — and the head of U.Va.’s Black Student Alliance (BSA), who sponsored and celebrated the speech.

Our criticism no doubt struck the BSA’s head as “severe, hostile, and repeated,” and caused him “emotional distress,” since he transferred to Hampton State University in the middle of his third year in college after being ostracized by outraged students. (Forty-six people of all different races came up to me and thanked me for my criticisms, but no one wanted to do so publicly, lest they be accused of “racism” or receive threats from Nation of Islam supporters, as my friend David did. My friend Arshad, a Bangladeshi Muslim who criticized the speech and the Nation of Islam as a “heretical expression of race hatred,” was left alone, probably because it is harder to brand a racial minority as being racist).

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. Hans also writes for CNS News and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.”


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