With media reports piling up over so-called “cyberbullying” and the tragic consequences of what 20 years ago would have been inconceivable — kids having the ability to bully each other using means of communication that nary requires a face-to-face dust-up or the traditional verbal taunting — a local lawmaker has put forward a pair of bills that would make cyberbullying a crime and set forth sentencing guidelines for those found guilty of committing it. While there is a little ironing out of some of the language to be done as committee work progresses, the bills would provide a tangible deterrent to cyberbullies — serious time in the slammer, in some cases — and hopefully cause them to rethink their actions. The legislation deserves bipartisan support and we hope Republican lawmakers from the lakes area and across the state get behind the legislation and enact it into law.
State Rep. Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield, Commerce, Wolverine Lake) introduced House Bills (HBs) 4237 and 4238 on Thursday, Feb. 10. The pair of bills has been forwarded to the House Judiciary Committee.
Under Brown’s legislation, a person would be guilty of cyberbullying if, in a public media forum, they knowingly post a false or intentionally misleading statement about any person under 18 years of age; if a reasonable person would find the message or statement to be damaging to the character or reputation of another person; and if the message or statement is posted with the intent to intimidate, frighten, or harass any other person or to cause emotional distress.
HB 4237 would provide that, if found guilty and under the age of 18, the perpetrator would be subject to a misdemeanor sentence that would include not more than 90 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $500. If the offender is over 18, a first offense could lead to up to one year behind bars.
If the cyberbullying results in the “serious impairment of a body function,” the responsible party would face up to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $5,000. If the offender is over 18, the cyberbully could face up to 15 years in prison and/or a fine of $10,000.
If the cyberbullying resulted in a suicide, the cyberbully could face up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 under Brown’s bills. If the offender is over 18, the cyberbully could face up to 20 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $20,000.
Another bill introduced by state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Lansing) would require school boards across the state to adopt specific policies prohibiting cyberbullying within six months of the legislation’s adoption. In addition, Whitmer’s bill would also require that all new teachers sign a statement acknowledging that they are familiar with their district’s new cyberbullying policy, and would expand the usage of the Michigan School Violence Hotline to include the ability to report cyberbullying and mandate that credible reports be shared with the local district administrator, parents of the intended victim, and the parents of the perpetrator.
Sadly, these bills are an unintended product of lightning-fast technological advances that, while great in many respects, have produced a slew of problems that no one could have foreseen. Extreme cases of cyberbullying across the country have lead to the suicides of young people. In Pontiac this past summer, a Facebook feud escalated to the point where a young woman was killed in a car accident while fleeing from her apparent taunter on Woodward Avenue. Young people who participated in so-called “sexting” have killed themselves when those messages were made public by their peers.
Brown’s bills would provide serious consequences for those who would participate in cyberbullying. The punishments set forth in the legislation seem reasonable, particularly for adults. Extreme cases — those in which the victim attempts to harm or kill themself — would be punished severely, which is as it should be. Cyberbullying that gets to that level should not result in a slap on the wrist for the person responsible, but instead strong repercussions that send a clear message not only to that individual, but also to anyone engaging in such behavior, that there are serious consequences such extreme forms of intimidation and harassment.
And while we do have concerns that some of the language in the proposed law could lead to a 7-year-old cyberbully being too severely punished for an untoward text message to a classmate, we suspect a case like that would be far-fetched — but still plausible under the current language. That issue should be resolved in the committee process.
At a time when elementary school students have cell phones with access to the Internet, Facebook and Twitter accounts, not to mention a spate of other social outlets with which to bully their peers, it’s only logical that stiff punishment face those who abuse those tools. Brown’s bills do that in a reasonable yet stern manner, and deserve support in both chambers of the state Legislature.