ANNAPOLIS – Legislation to expand Maryland’s law against cyberbullying of youngsters drew praise Tuesday from the mother of a child driven to suicide but scorn from a First Amendment advocate who said the statutory expansion would violate free speech.
Appearing before a Senate committee, Christine McComas said her 15-year-old daughter, Grace – who inspired the initial law — was “bullied to death” by an older teenager who posted vulgar insults, a death threat and called her “worthless.” The law’s expansion is necessary to combat the “explosion of cyberhatred,” the mother told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
But David Rocah, of the ACLU of Maryland, called the “well-intentioned” expansion “hopelessly overbroad,” saying it would criminalize merely hurtful speech, which is constitutionally protected.
The proposal, Senate Bill 726, would outlaw a one-time online bullying incident conducted with the perpetrator’s knowledge that his or her single post would likely be liked, shared or otherwise reposted multiple times. The legislation targets a post that intentionally “seriously annoys, alarms, intimidates, torments, or harasses another.”
The measure would expand “Grace’s Law,” a 2013 statute that makes it a crime punishable up to a year in jail and a $500 fine to engage in a continuous course of bullying online. The law was named for Grace K. McComas, of Woodbine, who killed herself on Easter Sunday in 2012 after the repeated bullying on social media sites.
Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, the bill’s chief sponsor and the committee chair, said the law’s requirement of continuous conduct has proven to be too narrow insofar as online abuse does not require the perpetrator to send a deliberately hurtful message multiple times to do harm, as a single posting can be expected to be shared, liked or otherwise reposted by others countless times.
Zirkin also defended the bill’s constitutionality, saying it targets not constitutionally protected speech but postings that are “beyond outrageous” in their intent to threaten and harass youngsters and which are widely disseminated on social media and not just during school hours.
“Facebook doesn’t stop when you leave the school grounds,” said Zirkin, D-Baltimore County.
“This (bullying) is unbelievably prevalent,” he added. “As the father of two young girls, this is what keeps you up at night.”
McComas said the expanded law would target “malicious, dehumanizing cyberbullying” in an age when children are more digitally interconnected than even her daughter was.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger also testified in favor of the bill, telling the committee that social media has far outpaced the 2013 law. “Once you post it, you can’t take it down.”
Rocah, in testifying against the bill, called cyberbullies “monsters” who, nevertheless, have the right to free speech.
The legislation would “give the government the power to punish huge swaths of protected speech,” including that which is annoying, Rocah told the committee. “Any regulation of speech has to be done extremely carefully.”
Rocah’s testimony drew scorn from Zirkin, who noted that neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor the Maryland Court of Appeals has ruled cyberbullying legislation unconstitutional.
“Not yet,” responded Rocah, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Maryland chapter.
Zirkin persisted, quizzing Rocah on whether telling a 13-year-old to kill herself because she is a whore is protected speech.
In response, Rocah said the bill contains “incredibly broad language” that would include messages he finds repulsive as a father but would be constitutionally protected.
“I have a daughter myself,” Rocah added.
Sen. Robert G. Cassilly, R-Harford, voiced concern that the bill was overbroad and would tread on free speech, particularly its prohibition on social media posts intended to seriously annoy.
“I get those all the time,” said Cassilly, a member of the Senate committee.
Sen. Michael J. Hough added that intentionally malicious comments are not confined to children.
“It shocks me what adults will even say” online, said Hough, R-Frederick and Carroll and a committee member. “This problem has only gotten so much worse.”