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Legislators want to update law in Twitter, Facebook age

2012-01-27

 


Currently, the only form of electronic harassment the law governs is that sent through email, said Del. Mary Washington, the sponsor of a bill that would expand the law to include any electronic transmission of information or data from one person to another that Maryland law considers harassing or obscene.
The measures would expand the definition of criminal harassment to include text messaging and other forms of electronic communication.

“Under Maryland law, Facebook didn’t exist,” said Washington (D-Dist. 43) of Baltimore.

Officials of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland oppose Washington’s bill because, they say, the law governing email harrassment defines criminal behavior too vaguely.

Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park is sponsoring a Senate bill that is identical to Washington’s.

Sen. James Brochin (D-Dist. 42) of Towson also has filed a bill that seeks to regulate electronic harassment and that lays out more specific definitions of the electronic devices the law would cover.

It prohibits the sending of electronic communications intended to “terrify, intimidate or harass another person” or “place another person in reasonable fear of injury or physical harm to that person or the property of that person.”

Raskin, a law professor, said his and Washington’s bills would not apply to electronic messages that are issued publicly, such as those posted on a Facebook page, website or blog, even if those messages are derogatory or offensive — just as the law allows public speech considered offensive.

Although the U.S. Constitution allows a person to criticize or deride another in public — through, for example, picketing or demonstration — it does not protect person-to-person communication of “fighting or harassing words,” Raskin said.

“You cross the criminal line when you take that message directly to that person through telephone, email or texts,” he said.

Brochin’s bill states that it would not apply to “a peaceable activity intended to express a political view or provide information to others.”

Brochin filed the bill in response to a constituent who told him that her ex-husband was continually harassing and intimidating her electronically, he said. “We’re trying to find legislation to deal with technology that the founders couldn’t envision,” he added.

Washington said she decided to file her bill after hearing from a female constituent who said two people she knew threatened to kill her on their Facebook pages.

Washington added that although the bill would not cover the kinds of threats her constituent received, it would protect those who get direct threats. It also is likely to spark discussion in the legislature of how the state should regulate criminal behavior that occurs electronically, as technology continues to evolve, she said.

“I think what it does is open up the conversation on how we as legislators keep up with those rapid changes in technology,” she said, adding that previous updates to the law added harassment via the telephone in 1957 and email in 1998.

Twenty-two states have passed laws that are similar to the one her bill seeks to establish, she said.

The Maryland ACLU opposes Washington’s bill in part because the law governing email communications is unconstitutionally vague in the manner in which it defines “harass,” according to testimony given by the state ACLU’s Legislative Director, Melissa Goemann, during a Jan. 19 hearing on Washington’s bill before the House Judiciary Committee.

“Expanding the scope of the statute in the way that this bill does would serve to further exacerbate the problem,” Goemann testified.

The Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence supports efforts to protect people from electronic harassment, said Michaele Cohen, the group’s executive director, adding that incidents of domestic intimidation through electronic devices are on the rise. However, the group wants to ensure that any new legislation guarantees free speech protections, she added.

Raskin and Washington said they have worked with the office of Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler in drafting their bills.

“We’re supportive of the legislation and the hard work these legislators are doing,” said Alan Brody, Gansler’s spokesman. “It’s not something that we are getting out in front of.”

skelly@gazette.net

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