Good idea, but tread lightly...
Bullying has reached new heights because of the ability of bullies to wreak havoc against others from behind the shield of the computer screen.
Serious injury caused by cyberbullies has attracted the attention of lawmakers who justly want to criminally penalize the conduct. But it's a delicate area entangled with legitimate free speech rights.
Rep. Kathryn Watson, a Berks County Republican, has introduced a bill creating a high-level misdemeanor, comparable to simple assault, for impersonating someone else online. She cited cases involving students impersonating teachers online to harass other students, and others in which students spread false information online to ruin reputations of classmates.
Ms. Watson contends that the bill will not impinge First Amendment rights because it requires prosecutors to prove criminal intent by the impersonator to do harm. She believes that will protect satire, parody and other commentary, and harmless joking among acquaintances.
Because of the complexity of the English language, Ms. Watson takes on a daunting task. Intent cannot be determined by results alone. A misinterpreted message that has a bad result might not reflect the intent of the person who crafted the message.
The complexity of the language also affects the crafting of the law itself. Ms. Watson faces a huge challenge in finding language targeting those with criminal intent that is broad enough to punish them, yet narrow enough not to ensnare the innocent.
Ms. Watson is definitely on the right track, but lawmakers must be careful and skeptical when asked for penalties that could become barriers to free speech.