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House passes expansion of anti-cyberbullying law

Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore City, the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. (File Photo)

Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore City, is the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, which approved the expanded anti-cyberbullying legislation and sent it to the House floor. (File photo)

ANNAPOLIS – The House of Delegates passed legislation Thursday to expand Maryland’s law against the cyberbullying of youngsters.

The House’s 137-0 vote followed the Senate’s 45-0 passage last month of a substantially similar measure that 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.

Sponsors of the measure have said they expect the Senate and House to pass a unified bill in the coming weeks and present it to Gov. Larry Hogan for his signature into law.

Both bills would target an online post that intentionally intimidates or harasses a minor, causing the child to suffer a physical injury or serious emotional distress.

The legislation 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.

The chief sponsors of the proposed expansion 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, since a single post can be expected to be liked, shared or otherwise reposted by others countless times, said Del. Jon S. Cardin and Sen. Robert A. “Bobby” Zirkin, both Baltimore County Democrats.

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

“We live in a brave new world and it is for us in Annapolis to set up some reasonable parameters on how to treat our children,” Cardin said after the House vote. “This is an important issue that is going to curb the bullying of kids.”

The measures are Senate Bill 103 and House Bill 181.

Grace’s mother, Christine McComas, has urged legislators to pass the proposed statute, dubbed Grace’s Law 2.0 by its sponsors.

Christine McComas told the House Judiciary Committee last month that Grace was “literally a bright light from birth” and that watching her 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 Judiciary Committee, now chaired by Del. Luke Clippinger, D-Baltimore City, approved the legislation last week and sent it to the House floor.

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