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New bill in Pennsylvania intended to regulate online bullying

We live in a world of dizzying technological change. In just the last ten years, social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and a plethora of dating websites have redefined how we interact with one another. But according to a Pennsylvania congressman, some of our laws regulating that activity have fallen behind the times. A new bill in the Pennsylvania State Congress promises to rectify that imbalance by giving law enforcement officials the ability to punish online bullying.

If passed, House Bill 2249 will make it a misdemeanor to impersonate someone on the internet with the intent to cause harm. The bill's creator, Rep. Katharine Watson, says the bill is intended to punish internet crime such as cyber bullying. She sponsored the bill after a number of students in her district harassed others using online impersonation.

The bill has not escaped controversy, however. Opponents contend that its language is not precise enough to easily enforce. The problem, they say, is in the bill's assertion that there must be "intent to harm" in the act. In the words of Rep. Tom Caltagirone, defining intent to harm "is a murky, gray area." Many of the incidents affected by this bill will be brought forward by children against other children, and in those cases it could be difficult to separate malicious intent from simple childhood prank.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has also taken an interest in the case, arguing that the bill violates the right to free speech. Watson contends that the bill makes an exception for impersonation for the purpose of social commentary, parody, and satire, and therefore does not violate the First Amendment.

As technology moves forward, our laws must evolve to regulate it. Cyber bullying is a terrible crime, and the law must be capable of punishing those affected by it. As these changes are put in place, however, legal professionals involved will need to examine them with care. In this case, difficult issues like determining a child's "intent to harm" could mean that cases charged under these laws will need to be examined carefully and individually.

Sources: The Pocono Record, "New Internet bill: Outlaw 'intended' harm, not bad jokes," Melissa Daniels, Sept. 24, 2012

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