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Senate passes anti-cyberbullying expansion; attention shifts to House

Sen. William 'Will' Smith

Sen. William C. “Will” Smith said the legislation would put Maryland “in the forefront of protecting our children from online bullying.” (Bryan P. Sears / The Daily Record)

ANNAPOLIS – The Senate on Thursday morning passed legislation to expand Maryland’s law against the cyberbullying of youngsters, as the mother of a teenager who killed herself after being bullied online looked on.

After the Senate’s 45-0 vote, attention shifted to the House of Delegates, where the Judiciary Committee heard testimony Thursday afternoon on cross-filed legislation to 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.

The Senate-passed bill would target 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, chief sponsor of Senate Bill 103, told his colleagues before the vote that the bill is essential to protect every child against online abuse directed specifically at him or her.

“This isn’t about schoolyard bullying,” said Zirkin, D-Baltimore County and chair of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. “This is about torturing children online.”

Sen. William C. “Will” Smith Jr., D-Montgomery and vice chair of the committee, told his colleagues the legislation would put Maryland “in the forefront of protecting our children from online bullying.”

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 she was called “worthless” online by an older teenager, who also posted vulgar insults and a death threat.

“Grace’s Law,” 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 has said the law’s mention of continuous conduct has proven too narrow. He said online abuse does not require the perpetrator to send a deliberately hurtful message multiple times to do harm, since a single post can be expected to be liked, shared or otherwise reposted by others countless times.

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.”

Before the Senate vote, Zirkin noted that Grace’s mother, Christine McComas, was in the gallery.

The senators gave her a standing ovation.

Speaking before the House Judiciary Committee Thursday afternoon, Christine McComas told delegates that her daughter was “literally a bright light from birth” and that watching Grace’s demise from cyberbullying was like observing “a slow-motion car wreck.”

“It’s invasive, it’s pervasive and it never goes away,” McComas said of online attacks. “Children need additional protection from those who would use it (cyberspace) for harm.”

A Grace’s Law 2.0 bill cleared the Senate last year but died in the House Judiciary Committee amid concern by Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George’s and the panel chair at the time, that the measure would violate the free-speech rights of people who post, text or tweet, a concern shared by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

The House committee is now chaired by Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore City.

Del. Jon S. Cardin, D-Baltimore County, is the primary sponsor of the cross-filed measure, House Bill 181.

“This is about children getting hurt,” Cardin told his fellow House Judiciary Committee members. “We can stop it if we can move our laws with the technology that’s moving today. Facebook, Twitter have moved forward, but Maryland has not.”

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