By CASEY HULL
Capital News Service
LANSING – Michigan would become the 17th state with criminal penalties for cyberbullying under a proposal in the Legislature that would make it a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison if a bullied person dies.
The bill would make cyberbullying a misdemeanor with a potential maximum one-year jail term. However, if the bullying results in the death of the victim, it would become a felony.
Current state law doesn’t specify what qualifies as cyberbullying.
Enforcement of penalties for online bullying creates the potential for a First Amendment viiolation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan.
“There is no Supreme Court decision for lower courts to go off of,” said Tara Mesyn, a former Mason High School teacher who is working on a study of cyberbullying laws at Michigan State University.
“The lack of precedent has caused interpretation of what is and what isn’t cyberbullying to be all over the place,” she said.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township.
“As it stands, a child’s parents are required to find representation and to pursue litigation for cyberbullying on their own,” Lucido said.
“With the passage of this bill, it would become possible for the state or justice system to act on cases of suicide and independently investigate potential acts of bullying,” he said.
The House Crime and Justice Committee was prepared to pass the bill before receiving a letter from the ACLU raising concerns that the law would violate freedom of speech under the First Amendment.
The committee will reconsider the bill later this year, said Lucido, vice chair of the committee.
According to ACLU of Michigan policy counsel Kimberly Buddin, “The broad scope of the bill ends up criminalizing speech online that would generally be protected.”
Buddin acknowledged that “advocating for someone to cause physical harm to another person would not fall under protected free speech.”
The Department of Education has taken a neutral stance on the legislation, according to its school safety consultant, Aimee Alaniz.
By CASEY HULL