States mull harassment laws

Netizens in Maryland who send "annoying" or "embarrassing" email may find themselves in the slammer if a new state bill becomes law.

CNET News staff
3 min read
Netizens in Maryland who send "annoying" or "embarrassing" email may find themselves in the slammer if a state bill introduced on Thursday becomes law.

If adopted, House Bill 778 would amend the state's criminal harassment law to prohibit the use of email to annoy, abuse, torment, harass, or embarrass other people. Violators could receive a fine up to $500 and three years in jail.

Democratic General Assembly Representative Samuel Rosenberg said his bill will simply add email to the law's provisions about telephone harassment. But cyber-liberties groups say the law would be unconstitutional because the rights to "annoy" and "embarrass" are protected under the First Amendment.

Maryland isn't the only state where efforts are under way to outlaw harassment and threats in cyberspace. Legislators across the country are pushing similar legislation even though a federal law with similar provisions, the Communications Decency Act, is going before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 19.

Some civil-liberties groups say the states should wait. Maryland's bill, for example, would be found unconstitutional if challenged, they say.

"The bill is ridiculously unconstitutional," said Stanton McCandlish, director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "This law is taking a medium that is more like newspapers and putting restrictions on speech. It would make it a crime to be a whistle-blower. There are thousands of Net mailing lists out there that can be censored by this bill if it passes."

Free-speech advocates also say current laws intended to apply to phone communications have to redefined for the Internet. For example, the practice of "flaming"--sending heated, argumentative email, often in large numbers or by groups of people--is quite common on the Net.

Rosenberg introduced the same bill last year, but it was rejected. Now in his 15th term, he has reintroduced it, believing that the Net's growing popularity should help his case.

"Hopefully, my colleagues will be more aware now than they were last year that people can be injured and harassed on the Internet," Rosenberg said. "This stature is preventive as harassment can often be the first step to something much more serious."

Such was the case when a Johns Hopkins University student was shot to death on campus in April after being threatened by the assailant via email. Rosenberg doesn't think the law alone would have prevented the death. However, the police should have a law on their side to arrest online badgers, he said.

A similar bill introduced last year is quietly progressing through New York's state legislature. Senate Bill 1414 could be voted on in the House early this year, according to John Turoski, legislative coordinator for Democratic State Senator Ray Goodman, who authored the bill.

Goodman's bill amends the state's criminal harassment law to include "computer network" as a tool to make threats, harass, annoy, or alarm another person. The law already includes "electronic means by telephone." As the bill defines it, a computer network includes email or possibly a Web site.

Turoski didn't know the exact penalties. However, it's likely to include a fine or jail time as a misdemeanor.

In addition, Connecticut passed such a law in October, and Arizona and Michigan passed similar laws in 1992.