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Senate gives initial OK to anti-cyberbullying expansion

State Sen. Robert "Bobby" Zirkin has called the proposed measure "Grace's Law 2.0." (File photo)

State Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin has called the expansion of Maryland’s law against the cyberbullying law of youngsters “Grace’s Law 2.0.” (File photo)

ANNAPOLIS – The Senate on Tuesday gave preliminary approval by voice vote to a bill that would expand Maryland’s law against the cyberbullying of youngsters.

Senators could vote as early as this week on final passage of the legislation, which would outlaw a one-time online bullying incident conducted with the perpetrator’s knowledge that his or her single post would probably be liked, shared or otherwise reposted multiple times. Senate Bill 103 targets a post that intentionally intimidates, torments or harasses a minor, causing the child to suffer a physical injury or serious emotional distress.

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, the bill’s chief sponsor, called the legislation “really important in protecting” every child against online abuse directed specifically at him or her.

“The value of this legislation is to deter malicious intent to abuse children online,” said Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

A similar bill cleared the Senate last year but died in the House Judiciary Committee amid concern by the panel’s then-chair, Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s, that the measure would violate the free-speech rights of those who post, text or tweet, a belief shared by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

Responding to that concern, Zirkin said Monday that the harm the bill addresses is not words but actions.

“This is not abusive speech,” the senator said. “This is bullying conduct. This is outrageous conduct, abusive conduct that is akin to child abuse.”

The bill and the law it would expand are named in memory of Grace K. McComas, a 15-year-old Woodbine girl who killed herself on Easter Sunday 2012 after an older teenager called her “worthless” on social media and posted vulgar insults and a death threat.

“Grace’s Law,” as enacted in 2013, makes it a crime punishable by 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 too narrow. Online abuse does not require the perpetrator to send a deliberately hurtful message multiple times to do harm, as a single post can be expected to be liked, shared or otherwise reposted countless times by others, he said.

The bill also would increase the punishment to up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

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

Similar legislation awaits consideration by the House Judiciary Committee, now chaired by Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore City. The panel is scheduled to hold a hearing Thursday on House Bill 181.

Del. Jon S. Cardin, D-Baltimore County, is the measure’s primary sponsor. House Judiciary Committee Vice Chair Vanessa E. Atterbeary, D-Howard, is a lead sponsor.


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