The city of Carson, Calif. — part of the Los Angeles metropolitan area — is about to discuss an ordinance to criminalize “bullying,” defined as (in part):

a willful course of conduct which involves harassment of a person(s) from kindergarten through age 25.

“Course of conduct” is defined as “a pattern of conduct composed of a series of overt acts over a period of time, however short, evidencing a continuity of purpose.” “Harassment” is defined as any conduct or speech that (among other things)

would cause a person to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed or molested and which serves no legitimate purpose.

The bill also provides, “This chapter shall not be construed to apply to any constitutionally protected activity or freedom of speech.”

Now this is bad enough, I think: Any time you do something that “would cause a person” to feel, among other things, “harassed or molested,” you could be sent to jail, unless the judge or jury finds you had a “legitimate purpose” — whatever exactly that means — or were engaged in “constitutionally protected activity or freedom of speech” (but recall that many police officers, prosecutors, judges, and jurors may have quite narrow views of freedom of speech in these contexts). This is an extremely vague and potentially quite broad prohibition.

But on top of that, look at what the Carson City Council seems to think may qualify, and what in its view would presumably generally lack a “legitimate purpose” and not be “constitutionally protected … freedom of speech”:

[C]yberbullying may include sending hurtful, rude and mean text messages; spreading rumors or lies about others by email or social networks; and creating websites, videos or social medial profiles that embarrass, humiliate or make fun of others….

So if the bill is enacted, and you send “hurtful, rude and mean messages” about someone under age 25, you could be committing a crime (and this presumably isn’t limited to messages to the person, but, as with the rumors and the Web sites, includes messages about a person). If you spread rumors — including accurate rumors (recall that it’s rumors or lies) — about someone under 25 you could be committing a crime. If you create Web sites, videos or social media profiles, or presumably just post items on your own existing Web sites or social media pages, that “embarrass” or “make fun” of someone, you could be committing a crime.

Now I personally think that most of this would indeed be constitutionally protected freedom of speech. But it doesn’t look like the Carson City Council agrees, and local enforcement authorities might not agree either. So the stuff of everyday gossip and personal recrimination — people complaining about the alleged wrongs done to them by their exes, people denouncing others who they think behaved badly, and more —could lead speakers to face arrest, a trial and jail time. It will all be up to police officers, prosecutors, judges and jurors to decide whether your speech “would cause a person” to feel “harassed,” whether it had a “legitimate purpose” and whether it was constitutionally protected. This is not, I think, the way our criminal law ought to operate.

Thanks to Hans Bader for the pointer.