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Zirkin says he will revive expanded cyberbullying bill

While sitting in a Senate Judical Proceedings committee meeting in Annapolis, Christine McComas, held a picture of her daughter Grace, a teen who committed suicide after being bullied online. An anti bullying law was passed about 7 years ago called Grace's Law and a new measure seeks to expand its reach. (Bryan Sears)

While sitting in a Senate Judical Proceedings committee meeting in Annapolis, Christine McComas, held a picture of her daughter Grace, a teen who committed suicide after being bullied online. (Bryan P. Sears/The Daily Record)

ANNAPOLIS – A bill to expand Maryland’s law against cyberbullying of youngsters died amid constitutional concerns in the House Judiciary Committee this General Assembly session but will be resurrected next year, the measure’s chief sponsor said Tuesday.

“We are going to make this an even bigger push in the next legislative session,” Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin said of his expansive bill that would have outlawed a one-time bullying incident conducted with the perpetrator’s knowledge that his or her single “maliciously” sent post would likely be liked, shared or otherwise reposed multiple times.

“It is beyond incumbent on us (legislators) to act to protect children,” added Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “It (the bullying) is not going to get any better … as technology grows exponentially.”

The bill, which the Senate passed 46-0, died in the House Judiciary Committee amid the chairman’s concern the legislation was too broad and would have encroached on the free-speech rights of social-media users.

The measure, Senate Bill 726, had “very serious constitutional problems,” Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, said Tuesday.

But Zirkin rejected Vallario’s argument, saying the bill was narrowly drawn to address only speech intended to bully youngsters, which is not protected by the First Amendment. Zirkin said the state has a compelling interest in protecting children from online bullying, citing cases in which youngsters have committed suicide amid the online onslaught.

The bill and the law it would expand are named in in memory of Grace K. McComas, a 15-year-old Woodbine girl who killed herself on Easter Sunday 2012 after an older teenager posted on social media vulgar insults, a death threat and caller her “worthless.” Grace’s mother, Christine McComas, lobbied for law’s expansion and will continue to do so, Zirkin said.

“Neither one of us has any intention of stopping,” the senator added. “Obviously, we have to work on House members.”

“Grace’s Law,” as enacted in 2013, makes it a crime punishable up to a year in jail and a $500 fine to engage in a continuous course of bullying online.

Zirkin said the law’s mention of continuous conduct has proven to be too narrow. 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, he added.

Zirkin has dubbed the proposed expansion “Grace’s Law 2.0.”


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