States look to enact cyberbullying laws

USA TODAY, March 19, 2012

By Yamiche Alcindor

Lawmakers in at least five states aim to stiffen or enact cyberbullying laws as national concern grows over electronic harassment and its deadly consequences.

The states — Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine and New York— want to put penalties on the books for the types of digital bullying that led students in several states to commit suicide. Among the victims was Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman who jumped to his death in 2010 after his roommate used a webcam to spy on his gay encounter. The roommate, Dharun Ravi, was convicted Friday on 15 counts in a case that drew national attention.

North Carolina passed a law in 2009 to criminalize cyberbullying, making it a misdemeanor for youths under 18.

The trend in legislation is “bringing our laws into the digital age and the 21st century,” said New York state Sen. Jeffrey Klein, sponsor of a bill to criminalize cyberbullying. “When I was growing up, you had a tangible bully and a fight after school. Now you have hordes of bullies who are terrorizing over the Internet or other forms of social media.”

Under Klein’s proposed law, anyone found guilty of using electronics to stalk or harass someone could face a misdemeanor or felony charge that could carry a prison sentence.

Forty-eight states have anti-bullying laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The move now is to strengthen those laws and add specific consequences for electronic intimidation and harassment:

In Indiana, a proposed bill would give schools more authority to punish students for off-campus activities such as cyberbullying from a computer not owned by the school.

In Maine, a proposal would define bullying and cyberbullying, specify responsibilities for reporting incidents of bullying and require schools to adopt a policy to address bullying.

In Delaware, meetings are underway to decide how a new cyberbullying policy would regulate off-campus behavior.

Legal experts say the laws can possibly infringe on free speech, particularly if a student is accused of using a computer that is not on school grounds. Five states — Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia and Illinois — limit school jurisdiction over cyberbullying behavior to acts that are committed using school-owned or -leased computers, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Opponents of cyberbullying legislation in Indiana, South Dakota and Montana have criticized the laws as vague, too punitive and counterproductive.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, based in Arlington, Va., said the movement in the legislatures and the courts is focusing on the disciplinary system and is shortsighted. “You’re not going to be able to punish people into being more tolerant,” he said.