TALLAHASSEE – Florida’s anti-bullying law could be extended beyond the boundaries of schools to online forums under a proposal sparked by a Polk County cyber-bullying case that drew a national media spotlight.
Florida already requires public schools to police bullying on their grounds. But the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice advanced a bill Wednesday (SB 548) making it a crime to do so off the school grounds or online.
“Today, with the click of a key a person can destroy the life of another person,” said the bill sponsor, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. “There are a group of people who can say anything or do anything on the Internet. They feel there are no limits.”
Simmons is responding to the nationally publicized case of a Polk County 12-year-old who killed herself last year after being harassed online with legislation that would require that such online harassment carries the same penalty in-person as bullying.
But one education lobbyist said the act might go too far by opening up schools to excessive liability.
"What happened in Polk County was a crime,” Bob Harris, a lobbyist for the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium, told the panel. But the bill would open schools to free-speech lawsuits, “and the cost is just too high.”
Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, suggested the bill should be amended to limit legal liability for schools, but Simmons argued the schools were already safeguarded because the language had a high bar and was modeled after Florida’s stalking statute, which has already been upheld in the courts.
Prosecutors this winter dropped charges against two teen girls accused of cyber-bullying 12-year-old Rebecca Ann Sedwick of Lakeland until she committed suicide. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd had arrested the girls accused of stalking and harassing Rebecca and their arrest was broadcast in front of news cameras.
Rebecca jumped to her death last September from a tower at an abandoned cement plant in Lakeland.
Family and investigators said she received cruel messages from classmates on her mobile device in the months preceding her suicide. Her mother has since announced she plans to pursue a civil lawsuit against the children accused of being her tormentors.
Cyberbullying is prohibited by a Florida law passed last year but there is no criminal penalty for abusers. The law went into effect weeks after Rebecca's suicide, and critics have said its implementation has been too slow.
“The idea is not to take all the conduct that we know is disgusting and reprehensible that goes on but doesn’t rise to the level of a crime … but that which transcends the boundaries of what a decent society defines as acceptable,” Simmons said.
Sen. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat who represents part of Polk, questioned whether the bill was tough enough to have made a difference in the Sedwick case.
Simmons said it would. The bill would make it a second degree misdemeanor penalty for bullying and a first degree misdemeanor for aggravated bullying, with cyber-bullying falling under the definition.
The idea is that activity where an individual “willfully, maliciously and repeatedly harasses or cyber-bullies” another, they could face up to 1 year in jail and $1,000 fine.