Harassing a person over the internet — either by threatening them or sending them lewd material — would become a crime in New Jersey under a controversial bill that protects minors and closes a legal loophole, the Star-Ledger reported Thursday
The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the measure, which would create a new category of crime called "cyber harassment," closing a loophole in state law that prevents people from being criminally prosecuted for online harassment of minors.
State Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), co-sponsor of the bill, said it is aimed at protecting children.
"There have been cases of cyber harassment across the country that have taken a tragic turn, and ended in the loss of life," said Norcross. "We have to make sure that our state laws reflect the reality that children are being harassed and bullied every day on the Internet. That means making sure those who engage in this conduct can be held accountable under the law."
The bill would ban people from using electronic devices and social media to threaten to injure or commit any crime against a person or his property, or send obscene material to or about someone, according to the Star-Ledger.
Offenders would be punished by up to 18 months in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000. But if the offender is over 21 and impersonating a minor, penalties would hike to five years in prison and a maximum fine of up to $15,000.
Minors age 16 or under who are caught cyber harassing could be ordered to take a course or a training program intended to curtail the behavior. And if a parent or guardian doesn't accompany the minor, they could be charged with disorderly person's offense.
Opponents say the bill is too vague. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said on its website that the measure could run into trouble with the First Amendment.
"Because the terms 'indecent' and 'harass' could both be read broadly under this law, and because the statute prohibits speech about a person (like, say, a state legislator) even if it is simply said in public and not to that person specifically, the statute would criminalize a significant amount of protected speech," said program officer Susan Kruth.
In 2011, New Jersey enacted the nation’s toughest law against bullying and harassment in schools after the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi. The Freshman jumped off the George Washington Bridge after he found out his roommate had covertly videotaped him in a sexual embrace with another man. The incident drew national attention.
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