By ERIKA WOODWARD
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 19, 2009)—People harassed by bullies who use social networking sites and online postings cannot look to the law for protection and that has to change, said parents and advocates who testified in the House Thursday in favor of a bill that would make the behavior a punishable offense.
Currently, a criminal electronic misuse law protects victims of harassment if it's perpetrated via email, but the law has not been updated to include tools used by today's tech-savvy bullies, such as Myspace and Twitter.
"You can't stop stupid behavior and you certainly can't legislate answers to stupid behavior," said Delegate Nicholaus Kipke, R.-Anne Arundel, a sponsor of the bill that was heard before the House Judiciary Committee.
"But what you can do and what this bill seeks to do is create an opportunity for the state police, the online crimes division, to step in ... to prevent a tragedy," he said.
Tragedy befell 16 year-old Greg Cardarelli on March 22, 2004, when he drove his Ford Mustang into a tree just hours after classmates told him that a girl he thought he had been dating online for three months was actually a fake person they made up, according to the written testimony of his parents Gary and Sharon Cardarelli.
"He was so embarrassed ... that he decided he couldn't face anyone at school or his family and decided to end his life by crashing his beloved car into a tree, literally within hours of learning about the terrible deception," they said.
Other victims of cyber bullying live with the emotional scars.
According to a 2006 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 32 percent of all teenage Internet users say they have received threatening messages, have had private emails or text messages forwarded without their consent, or have otherwise been embarrassed by someone online.
The study found girls 15-17 "were more likely to experience some form of cyber bullying" compared to their male peers, with 41 percent of girls in that age group reporting they were victims of cyber bullying.
"I've watched how this has affected my daughter," said a mother from Anne Arundel County who testified at Thursday's hearing.
Her daughter had been harassed by classmates on MySpace, where they created a public page that verbally assaulted her, she said.
"I've held her when she cried. I've listened to her vent her anger and frustration, because there was nothing that could be done," said the mother. "And these girls got away with a slap on the wrist and were told `you were bad; don't do it again.'"
If the bill is passed, the criminal law for electronic misuse will be amended to include the new tools of cyber bullying. Had the amendment been in place when the daughter was bullied, the bullies could have been charged with a misdemeanor and sentenced to up to one year in prison or fined $500.
According to the bill, to harass means to "place a person in reasonable apprehension of immediate or future bodily harm, sexual assault, confinement, or restraint," or to "frighten, intimidate, or cause emotional distress."
Kipke said his intention is not to send anyone to prison, but to create a strong deterrent for using the Internet as a weapon.
"The goal of this is not necessarily to put people behind bars or to fine people." he said. "Although if it deters people, great."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.