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Fix laws to keep pace with cyberbullying

Something is wrong here.

Something with our laws, or with our culture. Something with our schools, or with our priorities.

Because it is inconceivable that a 12-year-old girl could apparently be bullied so often and so cruelly that she would choose to end her life and, two months later, authorities would seemingly close the book on her alleged tormentors.

This doesn't mean that prosecutors erred this week when they declined to pursue aggravated stalking charges against two teenage girls in connection with the September death of Rebecca Sedwick in Lakeland.

The State Attorney's Office, presumably, was hampered by the lack of criminal statutes covering cyberbullying in Florida, and the difficulty in proving that one person's actions directly impacted another person's decision.

Yet the end result remains stupefying.

If it is not cyberbullying for one child to harass another for nearly a year through social media — going so far as to repeatedly suggest she should kill herself — then what is?

"It's a very difficult thing to prove,'' said Sameer Hinduja, one of the founders of the Cyberbullying Research Center and a professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University. "We have these traditional laws trying to be applied to new technology.''

So why don't we change our laws?

The question is more complex than it sounds.

To begin with, free speech is covered under the First Amendment. To try to regulate what children write in text messages or on social media websites becomes a murky constitutional question as long as direct threats are not involved.

The issue of what constitutes bullying is another problem. How do you codify what is over-the-edge bullying compared to common childhood teasing? And are law enforcement agencies in a position to make that judgment call?

"There is a desire to have a broad, one-size-fits-all answer to cyberbullying,'' said Lyrissa Lidsky, a First Amendment and cyber law professor at the University of Florida. "I don't know if this phenomenon lends itself to that kind of solution.''

Florida has passed two cyberbullying laws in recent years, but they were designed to establish protocols for dealing with the issue in schools. There are no criminal statutes on the books that specifically deal with bullying via social media.

Everyone seems to agree that the laws aimed at schools are a good start, but I have a deep fear they do not go far enough.

The problem is, cyberbullying is vastly different from our traditional definition of bullying, and so it cannot be treated with old-fashioned remedies.

To begin with, there is no place for a child to hide from a cyberbully. It isn't like a confrontation in a school hall that is over in 30 seconds and witnessed by a dozen people. Harassment on the Internet invades every corner of a child's life. It is easily seen by the entire world, and it does not go away when the computer is turned off.

How do you tell a child to just ignore that?

Orlando attorney Mark O'Mara, who represented George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case, wants to draft legislation that would make parents criminally liable if they are willfully blind or grossly negligent to their children's online bullying.

While it would be unwise to legislatively demand that parents be responsible for everything written on a child's phone or computer, such a law could be a deterrent once a bullying case has been established by a school or law enforcement officials.

It would, in effect, create a chain of command. If it is determined that a student has engaged in cyberbullying via the school laws already on the books, then the parents would be notified that they will be responsible if the behavior continues.

Lidsky, the UF professor, says a similar avenue would be for victims to pursue civil cases involving the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The bottom line is we need to do better.

Our statutes need to be more specific. Our children need to be kinder. Our schools need to be more aware.

Technology is racing ahead of our laws, and it's our responsibility to make certain no child gets left behind.

Fix laws to keep pace with cyberbullying 11/23/13 [Last modified: Saturday, November 23, 2013 7:15pm]
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