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Maryland Senate passes bill to bolster 'cyberbullying' law

The Maryland Senate unanimously approved a proposal Thursday that calls for stiffer punishments for people who cyberbully children, a measure that would strengthen a law the General Assembly passed five years ago.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, called the 2013 law “too weak,” saying it failed to address all of the harassment young people face on social media.

“It was a novel idea at the time,” the Baltimore County Democrat said. “It just proved to be ineffective to stop what actually goes on online.”

Gov. Larry Hogan issued a statement Thursday praising Zirkin’s bill as a “potentially life-saving law.”

"Cyberbullying is a serious problem not only here in Maryland, but across the country,” the Republican governor said. “I am proud to strongly support this legislation to combat this unacceptable behavior.”

The proposed legislation, like the existing law, walks a fine line between criminalizing reprehensible conduct and stifling freedom of speech. Zirkin, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, admits that rewriting the law has been a challenge.

“It’s hard to define cyberbullying because we’re making it a crime,” he said.

According to David Rocah, an attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, Zirkin’s effort has failed and the group will oppose the bill’s passage. The civil liberties organization, which also opposed the 2013 bill, contends this year’s version is unconstitutional as well.

“We fought it in the Senate,” Rocah said. “We’ll fight it in the House.”

The legislation, named “Grace’s Law 2.0,” seeks to close loopholes and fix other problems in the current law, named after 15-year-old Grace McComas of Woodbine. Grace killed herself on Easter Sunday 2012 after being subjected to prolonged bullying and harassment by a neighbor through social media.

The bill now goes to the House Judiciary Committee, where the strong Senate vote is no guarantee of approval. But its chairman, Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., said he has discussed the bill with Zirkin and plans to give it an early hearing with a full slate of witnesses.

“The little I hear about, I like it,” the Prince George’s County Democrat said.

Where the current law requires prosecutors to prove a pattern of bullying behavior, Zirkin’s bill requires only a “single significant act” in the course of “intimidating, tormenting, harassing or physically harming a minor.”

Zirkin explained that a single instance of sending out harassing material can have devastating consequences when it goes out to 25,000 people at one time through social media.

“The damage is done with the push of a button,” he said.

The current law makes it a misdemeanor with a jail term of up to a year and a $500 fine to threaten or make false and defamatory statements about a minor in an electronic communication. The new proposal would stiffen the penalties to three years and a fine of $10,000. It proposes a provision that would increase the jail term to 10 years when the violator intends to push a minor into committing suicide.

As a misdemeanor, a violation of the law committed by a minor almost certainly would remain in juvenile court.

The bill also spells out in more detail than the current law some of the actions that would be illegal.

Among other things, it forbids posing as another person or a fictitious person in an electronic communication if the intent is to harass a minor. It would be illegal to spread sexual information, whether or not it is true, about a minor as part of a bullying campaign. It would forbid sending real or doctored images of a minor with the intent to torment or intimidate.

The bill responds to a growing problem in which teenagers can be vulnerable to sustained campaigns of harassment through social media. Zirkin said research has shown that one-third to half of today’s teenagers will have experienced online bullying before they turn 18.

Zirkin said the proposal draws on existing legislation in Texas and North Carolina. If it passes the legislature and is signed by Hogan, “this would bring us to the forefront of the nation in dealing with this issue,” he said.

The issue grabbed statewide attention in 2013 when Grace McComas’ family — led by mother Christine and father David — mounted an effort to pass the first legislation addressing online bullying in Maryland.

They told lawmakers that the Glenelg High School student took her own life after she had been the target of a months-long campaign of malicious postings on sites such as Twitter and Facebook. When the family turned to police and the courts to protect Grace while she was still alive, Christine McComas said, they were told nothing could be done.

Christine McComas, who was in the Senate chamber for Thursday’s vote, said she’s not sure the original bill was entirely ineffective. Court records showed there were 576 charges brought under the provisions of the current law between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017.

McComas, who has remained active as an anti-bullying advocate since the current law passed, said the revised bill will help. She said there have been enough changes in the online world that the law “needs some strengthening to protect our children.”

But Rocah said the U.S. District Court in Maryland already has declared as unconstitutional a federal law that is similar to how Zirkin’s bill defines certain actions as criminal.

“What this bill tries to prohibit is not conduct, but words,” Rocah said.

That, he added, violates the First Amendment.

Rocah warned that some of the bill’s provisions could have unintended consequences. He said the language about sexual conduct could be used against a rape victim who accused her attacker online. He said the clause dealing with sending images could prohibit someone from truthfully calling out a classmate for attending a Nazi rally.

Rocah credited supporters of the bill with “good intentions” but said that is not what determines whether a law is constitutional. He said most cases of cyberbullying could be prosecuted under a longstanding harassment statute that courts have upheld.

McComas contended the bill before the legislature will pass constitutional muster.

“I think it’s well documented that free speech has some limits,” she said. “One of those limits that is hard-core is the protection of children at a vulnerable age.”

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