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State Lawmaker Pushes Bill to Prevent Cyber Harassment of Children

Among the many lower-profile issues before state House lawmakers when they return to the Capitol this week is cyber bullying. At a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing, one representative pressed the case for tighter rules to reduce online harassment of children.

"The consequences can be, we found out, very devastating to a child," said sponsoring Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin). "In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has characterized cyber bullying as an emergency public health problem."

Repeated online swipes leveled at a minor (including disparaging comments, threats, or anything sexually explicit) would amount to a misdemeanor charge under a proposal that passed out of committee in the spring.

Civil liberties advocates have challenged similar laws in other states, and the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union opposes the legislation, and is questioning whether state lawmakers are out of line to want to create policy about how children may communicate electronically. State law only addresses general harassment and harassing text messages that are sexually explicit.

"The First Amendment does not permit the government to censor speech merely because it is mean-spirited, even if it concerns a minor," said ACLU Pennsylvania spokesman Andy Hoover in prepared testimony at a recent hearing on the measure.

Marsico said he's tried to strike the right balance with the bill.

"Mere teasing and that kind of involvement between children should not be criminalized," Marsico said. "But at the same time ... cyber bullying must be stopped. So this is what we've come up with in consultation with law enforcement."

The proposal has the support of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. Mike Piecuch, Snyder County District Attorney, testified on the group's behalf at a recent hearing, saying state law doesn't address cyber harassment at all (only general harassment and sexually explicit text messages). Piecuch suggested changes to the legislation to make it narrower.

"You may wish to amend the bill to require 'an intent to coerce, intimidate, or torment' a child," said Piecuch in his testimony to the House Judiciary Committee.

Marsico said he's open to the suggestion, so long as it still ensures law enforcement has the tools to tamp down cyber bullying.

"The ability to harass a child," Marsico said, "by repeatedly e-mailing or spreading seriously disparaging comments using social media has become all too prevalent."

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