The chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee said Thursday that a bill that stiffens penalties against online bullying will “fly out of committee.”
Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and sponsor of two bills that expand prohibitions known as Grace’s Law, made the comments to high school students working as Senate pages. Later, Zirkin told a reporter that a similar law is needed for adult online behavior.
“That bill is moving,” Zirkin said.
Zirkin told the students “a message needs to be sent. People, not just towards kids, have this fake courage behind their computer screens, things they’d never ever say to your face. Even in my world. You should see some of the things people think is ok to say to me. They don’t know who I am, they don’t know anything about anything. They’re typically 99 percent of the time they’re wrong and I just call them what they are — they’re a bunch of cowards. Say what you’ve got to say but come to our committee and say what you’ve got to say. When you do that to a kid that doesn’t have the coping skills to handle that, you’ll ruin that kid. When you do it to me you’ll just make me angry and I’m going to get you back.”
In comments to a reporter later, Zirkin said the bills are likely to get a vote in committee Thursday afternoon and he anticipated some amendments meant to address concerns raised by lawyers for the ACLU of Maryland who called the changes a “well-intentioned” expansion that is “hopelessly overbroad,” and criminalizes merely hurtful speech, which is constitutionally protected.
But Zirkin said the First Amendment has to be balanced against the well-being of children.
“This is a hard bill. It was hard five years ago,” said Zirkin. “Here’s the First Amendment and there’s always a question as to where the appropriate line is. We abridge the First Amendment in lots of ways. You can’t harass somebody. You can’t threaten somebody. We abridge the First Amendment, that’s not controversial to say that, in many different ways. The question is, what is the appropriate boundary of constitutionally protected speech and harassment online. It is a hard line to draw. It is always a hard line to draw whether it’s online or not online.”
Zirkin said the law and the amendments will focus on malice and intent and serious injury and “we’re going to get rid of the words ‘seriously annoy’ which is in the harassment statute.”
The chairman said the focus now is on children but added that the law should be expanded to cover adults.
“Minors under the law have been given elevated status,” said Zirkin. “I think the coping mechanisms for children are different. The ability to fight back is different. There’s a lot of issues that make it different. Should it be for adults? I’d argue that yes, I do think there’s a great argument for adults. We’re going to start with the kids as they’re the most vulnerable. If you’re asking me about adults, you’re damn right we do. All these people that are online that have their fake courage, the bunch of cowards behind their computer screen who would never say the types of things in person that they somehow feel emboldened to behind their computer screens, sure, yeah I think there’s an argument for that.”