Maryland lawmakers are working to update a 2013 anti-cyberbullying law with changes meant to adapt to today’s social media interactions.
Grace’s Law, as it’s known, requires prosecutors to prove a pattern of bullying behavior, while the update, called Grace’s Law 2.0, would only require proof of a “significant single act” that has the effect of “seriously annoying, alarming, intimidating, tormenting, harassing or physically harming another.” The updated law also would forbid using a fictitious account to carry out such actions. Additionally, it would outlaw spreading sexual information, whether it’s true or false, about a minor.
The legislation passed the Senate on March 1 and will appear in the House’s Judiciary Committee next. The law is named after a a Howard County teenager who committed suicide after she was bullied online.
Lead sponsor Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Democrat from Baltimore County, explained that with modern social networks, “the damage can be done at the push of a button,” negating the need to establish a pattern to recognize bullying.
A bill related to Grace’s Law 2.0, S.B. 725, would authorize school principals to report cyberbullying directly to law enforcement, skipping the traditional middle step of going through a board of education. Skipping that step would theoretically expedite the process of protecting the victim. That bill is expected to reach the full Senate floor next week.
The legislation would increase maximum penalties for certain violations. Current law classifies threats or false or defamatory statements made online towards a minor as a misdemeanor with a maximum of one year in jail and a $500 fine, but Grace’s Law 2.0 would ramp that up to three years and $10,000. When the offender tries to push the victim into committing suicide, a provision in Grace’s Law 2.0 would increase the jail term to 10 years.
The bill hasn’t been universally accepted by civil liberties groups. The American Civil Liberties Union opposed the original Grace’s Law and has criticized the new version.
“However well-intentioned — and I believe [Grace’s Law] is well-intentioned — I believe this bill is hopelessly overbroad,” said David Rocah, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU at a hearing for the bill on Feb. 20.
“One does not have to be unconcerned,” he said, “about bullying or blind to the incredible cruelty that people can inflict on each other, to also be concerned about giving the government the ability to punish, as a crime, huge swaths of protected speech.”
Zirkin understands the ACLU’s argument, and thinks Maryland can repeat what it did in 2013 to pass the original Grace’s Law.
“The ACLU had the same argument (against the 2013 law), but it wasn’t unconstitutional,” Zirkin told Capital News Service. “The sky didn’t fall down.”