NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York State Senator Jeffrey Klein introduced a new “cyber-bullying” bill on Monday, saying outdated pre-digital harassment laws fail to punish bullies who use the Internet and smartphones to torment others.
The New York bill is a response to several highly publicized cases of teen suicides in the aftermath of some form of online bullying. Klein, a Democrat from the Bronx and Westchester, argued that current state law had not been keeping pace with technology as life increasingly moved online.
“If people know there is a tough law on the books and they’re going to be punished, they are going to act accordingly,” Klein told a news conference outside the Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, where he was joined by members of two anti-bullying organizations.
At least 30 states already have laws dealing with online harassment. At least five have laws dealing explicitly with cyber-bullying, which a study found last year may be even harder on the victims than physical beatings or name-calling.
Under Klein’s bill, the crime of stalking in the third degree would be updated to explicitly include harassing a child using electronic communication.
To better reflect the nature of online interactions, the bill removes requirements that the offender initiate the contact and that the victim be a direct recipient of the communication.
Although it is already a crime to “intentionally cause or aid” another person’s suicide, the bill would update the state’s second-degree manslaughter statute to explicitly include cyber-bullying as a possible cause of such a suicide.
Senator Diane Savino, a Democrat from Staten Island and Brooklyn and a co-sponsor of the bill, said that although bullying has existed “since Cain and Abel,” it has been transformed by the Internet and smartphone technology.
A taunting remark in a school playground might be heard by a few and eventually forgotten, she said.. But the same remark posted online can potentially be seen by anyone and linger indefinitely.
Anne Isaacs, whose daughter Jamie, now 15, had to switch schools because of bullies, said online bullying was also much harder to escape than other forms.
“When Jamie would go online to do her homework she would go online and be screaming because messages would come up,” said Isaacs, who joined Klein at the press conference.
An attempt to legislate against cyber-bullying at the federal level foundered in 2008, and it has been left to the states to decide how to deal with the problem.
Mary Sue Backus, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma who has studied cyber-bullying, was cited several times in Klein’s supporting arguments for his bill. She said in an interview she generally opposed the kind of legislation he was pushing for, which could fail to act as a deterrent and instead have the effect of criminalizing adolescent behavior.
Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Cynthia Johnston