TRENTON – Lawmakers are considering a bill that would make it a criminal offense to harass someone online.
“There have been cases of cyber-harassment across the country that have taken a tragic turn, and ended in the loss of life. We have to make sure that our state laws reflect the reality that children are being harassed and bullied every day on the Internet. That means making sure those who engage in this conduct can be held accountable under the law,” said state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden/Gloucester), a sponsor of the proposed legislation.
This week, the Budget and Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the bill that defines “cyber-harassment” as a crime, clearing the way for the full state Senate to vote on it. The Assembly version has been awaiting action in the Law and Public Safety Committee since February.
Norcross worked with the Camden County-based group InternetSafeChild.com, an organization made up of former and current prosecutors working to improve internet safety for children, in crafting the legislation. The group highlighted the need for laws dealing specifically with cyber crimes that do not fit into the parameters of other established crimes. Currently, when a child is attacked on the Internet, parents will often try to file a criminal complaint against the attacker but are not successful because no appropriate crime for this activity exists.
The law would define cyber-harassment as using “any electronic device” or “social networking site” “to harass another” by threatening to inflict injury or physical harm to any person or their property, sending any “lewd, indecent, or obscene material to or about a person” or threatening to commit any crime against the person or the person’s property.
Some worry that the language of the proposed bill is too broad and could have a chilling effect on freedom of speech.
“Because the terms ‘indecent’ and ‘harass’ could both be read broadly under this law, and because the statute prohibits speech about a person (like, say, a state legislator) even if it is simply said in public and not to that person specifically, the statute would criminalize a significant amount of protected speech,” writes Susan Kruth, a lawyer who works for the non-profit Foundation for Individual Rights In Education.
An adult found guilty of “cyber-harassment” could face up to 18 months in prison, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. If the offender is over 21 and impersonates a minor to cyber-harass a minor, he or she would face three to five years imprisonment, a fine of up to $15,000, or both.
Children age 16 or younger adjudicated delinquent for cyber-harassment could be sentenced to a class or training program and the child’s parent or guardian could be fined if they fail to attend with their child.
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