When a Johns Hopkins University student was shot on campus in April, a trail of threats leading up to the murder was found in his email in-box.
The incident struck a cord with Maryland General Assembly Representative Samuel Rosenberg. He had already introduced a bill that would have amended the state's criminal harassment law to prohibit the use of email to annoy, abuse, torment, harass, or embarrass other people.
The law was voted down prior to the murder, but Rosenberg, a Democrat, thinks his fellow legislators may now be more responsive to the argument that email can be used to stalk victims online. Rosenberg doesn't believe the bill alone would have prevented the killing. But he does think the law needs to criminalize the use of computer networks or email to harass Netizens and intends to reintroduce his bill.
He isn't alone. Legislators in state houses across the country are looking to codify harassment and threats on the burgeoning online world.
Connecticut already passed such a law in October and Arizona and Michigan passed similar laws way back in 1992. Also in the works is a Illinois bill introduced during the previous legislative session that would include threats by computer in the definition of intimidation. That bill is expected to be voted on in January.
New York state Senator Ray Goodman, also a Democrat, is reintroducing a similar bill. "It just allows the police to take the proper measures," said John Turoski, Goodman's legislative coordinator.
But free-speech watchdogs say current laws intended to apply to phone communications have to redefined for the Internet. They argue that prohibiting annoying emails is like censuring annoying books, a violation of the First Amendment. With email, there may be a thin line between a joke and harassment.
"Unless the definitions are chosen very carefully, most of these laws, if passed, will be turned over for being unconstitutional," said Stanton McCandlish, program director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "We've seen Internet harassment laws written where the terminology used would make it illegal to get in an argument online."
There have been at least two recent examples in the news. A Florida man was reportedly convicted of a misdemeanor stalking by way of computer after sending life-threatening emails to an acquaintance. And a college student was charged with aggravated harassment last month for sending email threats to an Indianapolis family. In both cases, the suspects claimed to be kidding.
American Civil Liberties Union staff lawyer Ann Beeson said most courts are still unlikely to prosecute based only alarming or annoying emails. But, she added, the more important issue is determining who is responsible for monitoring online speech.
"They do not clarify who can be held liable...Because of the wording of the old laws, you can't tell if a Internet service provider could be held liable if someone using their service sent an annoying or harassing email," she said.