Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Annette Quijano, Charles Mainor and Tim Eustace to crack down on cyber harassment was approved by an Assembly panel on Thursday.
“Harassment, whether in person or over the internet, is just that – harassment,” said Quijano (D-Union). “In some cases, the spotlight of the internet intensifies the magnitude of the harassment and can lead to tragic endings, particularly for young teens. We need to send a clear message that we’re not going to tolerate it in any way, shape or form.”
The bill (A-3785) was initially prompted by the death of Megan Meier, a Missouri teen who committed suicide three weeks before her fourteenth birthday after being harassed and bullied on the internet by adults posing as a teenager. Since then, a number of high profile cyber harassment cases have been reported, including the tragic death of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi.
“I’m pleased that this bill includes parental involvement for teens that are found guilty of cyber harassment,” said Mainor. “No matter how much we try as lawmakers, we can’t effectively combat this problem without a comprehensive approach that involves everyone in a teen’s life.”
The bill defines cyber harassment as using any electronic device or social networking site with the purpose to harass another person and: 1) threatening to injure or harm a person or that person’s property; 2) knowingly sending or posting lewd, indecent or obscene material to or about a person with the intent to emotionally harm a reasonable person or place a reasonable person in fear of physical or emotional harm to his person; or 3) threatening to commit a crime against a person or his or her property.
“It breaks my heart to read stories about teens who have been harassed online to the point of suicide,” said Eustace (D-Bergen/Passaic). “It’s hard to police the ‘Wild West’ known as the Internet, but by toughening our laws on harassment, hopefully young people will understand that their actions online are not just a virtual reality, but ones with real life consequences.”
The bill would make cyber harassment a crime of the fourth degree, punishable by up to 18 months imprisonment, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. However, if the offender is over age 21 at the time of the offense and impersonates a minor for the purpose of cyber-harassing a minor, cyber harassment would be upped to a crime of the third degree, which is punishable by three to five years imprisonment, a fine of up to $15,000, or both.
Under the bill, if a minor under age 16 is adjudicated delinquent for cyber harassment, the court may order that the minor, accompanied by his or her parent or guardian, satisfactorily complete one or both of the following: 1) a class or training program intended to reduce the tendency toward cyber-harassment behavior; or 2) a class or training program intended to bring awareness to the dangers associated with cyber-harassment.
If a parent or guardian fails to accompany his or her child to the class or training program, the parent or guardian would be guilty of a disorderly person’s offense and fined up to $25 for a first offense and up to $100 for each subsequent offense.
The bill was approved by the Assembly Budget Committee and now awaits consideration by the full Assembly.