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Cyber-bullying could become a crime

Cyber-bullying has been a hot topic in public health and education communities during recent years, as an increasing number of teens take their own lives or suffer serious psychological effects because of the actions of their tormentors. After one Pennsylvania teen committed suicide by walking in front of a tractor-trailer, it was discovered that he had been the victim of cyber-bullying. Legislators in the state are now taking moves to tighten legal ramifications for such internet-related crime. Currently, there is little legal precedent that would allow for the conviction of a cyber-bully. Even if the cyber-harassment clearly occurred and is accompanied by evidence, there is no criminal charge that would apply to the harasser. Now, legislators in Pennsylvania are following the lead of other states’ lawmaking bodies by attempting to criminalize harassing speech online. States such as Missouri have already adopted such mandates. That jurisdiction passed a law against cyber-bullying after a 13-year-old girl hanged herself because of alleged electronic harassment. Now, instead of simply being considered a natural part of growing up, bullying would be considered an Internet crime. Even though legislators say that everyday teasing will not be criminalized, it is not clear how protections will be enacted to limit the reach of the criminal law. Officials say that juvenile defendants will be handled in the juvenile court system, while adults will be held to higher standards by facing formal criminal charges. The legislators supporting the measure insist that the Internet speech is akin to shouting, “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater when there is no blaze; that type of speech, known to incite panic, is not protected under the First Amendment. Another solution has been proposed, which would simply provide more training and support for educators and school administrators. Instead of criminalizing speech, it might make more sense to prevent the bullying from happening in the first place. ACLU representatives say they worry about the implications of criminalizing speech online, and they are strictly opposing the legal initiative. Source:  tribune-democrat.com, “Pa. mulls action on cyberbullying” John Finnerty, Sep. 12, 2013

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