Bill makes cyberbullying a crime; targets ‘hateful venom' that leads to violence

Bill proposed to make cyber bullying a crime

LANSING, MICH. - Posting an online message that leads to an assault or death could put you behind bars.

That’s the upshot of a cyberbullying bill introduced this week in Lansing. Violators would face a year in jail if someone is assaulted and up to 20 years in prison if an online post leads to death, even by suicide.

“I think society has gone wild,’’ said state Rep. Peter Lucido, sponsor of House Bill 5017. “We need to reign this in now or we have set the stage for chaos in Michigan.’’

Lucido, R-Shelby Township, says the legislation is needed to address what he calls a growing social menace. “A person shall not cyberbully another person,’’ the bill states.

Cyberbullying is defined as using an electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature.

If cyberbullying causes the victim to suffer from an assault by the violator “or any other person,’’ the person who posted the message faces a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

If a post causes the death of the victim, “regardless of whether the violator physically caused the death of the victim or the victim’s death was due to suicide,’’ the person behind the post could face a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The offense would be ‘‘cyberbullying causing death.’’

“We’ve had an epidemic of cyberbullying of both children and adults,’’ Lucido said. “Free speech is one thing, but when it crosses the line and leads to violence, there has got to be something to discourage that behavior.’’

Nationwide, about 21 percent of students ages 12 to 18 experience bullying, according to the website stopbullying.gov. It cites a 2014-2015 report by the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice statistics.

Nearly 19 percent of Michigan high school students reported being bullied online, according to a 2016 report by WalletHub. The rate was listed as fifth highest in the nation.

Michigan in 2011 adopted a law requiring schools to implement anti-bullying policies. Four years later, cyberbullying became an official type of bullying under state law. The 2015 law required school districts to include cyberbullying in their anti-bullying policies and report data to the state.

Lucido, a Macomb County attorney, says cyberbullying spans all age groups.

“It’s not just high school, it’s people in their 60s telling people you better watch your back; I’m coming,’’ Lucido said.

Under Lucido’s three-page bill, cyberbullying includes messages that are false or intentionally misleading, damaging to a person’s character or reputation and posted with the intent to intimidate, frighten, harass or cause emotional distress.

It also covers messages that urge, recommend or solicit another person to injure or kill himself or herself or urges another person to injure or kill the person the post was made about.

“There’s a free speech issue, but when you cross the line, it becomes criminal,’’ Lucido said. “We can’t allow people to spew venom with the intent of inciting violence. It’s time for the state to stop this train.’’

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