A bill signed into law by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) on Thursday gives Maryland families unparalleled protections against online harassment aimed at their children, a leading lawmaker said, and could serve as a template for national legislation.
Senate Bill 103 and its House companion HB 181 was dubbed Grace’s Law 2.0 by its chief sponsor, Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore County), because it built on a measure passed in 2013 following the suicide death of Howard County teen Grace McComas.
McComas’ parents say their 15-year-old daughter took her own life on Easter Sunday 2012 after being attacked online.
Zirkin, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the family’s ordeal motivated him to draft legislation to give families more options when cyberbullying hits home.
“They tried everything,” he said of Grace’s parents, Christine and Dave McComas. “They went to the police, they went to the school, they went to the courts. And they actually went to the perpetrator’s family. And they got turned away at every point.
”There was nowhere for them to turn. There was no law to help them,” Zirkin said.
The new law, which takes effect Oct. 1, makes cyberbullying with the intent to induce a minor to commit suicide a misdemeanor punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
Zirkin said the 2013 law required that abusive comments be sent to the individual and be part of a pattern of conduct. With the rise of social media, that proved to be too high a hurdle, he said.
Under the new law, “a single significant act can land you in trouble,” he told reporters.
The McComases attended the bill-signing ceremony Thursday in Annapolis at which Hogan signed the legislation into law. Christine McComas wore a button on her lapel with her daughter’s picture on it; Dave McComas wore a tie with “Amazing Grace” written in a rainbow of colors.
“This will protect future children from the types of things that we couldn’t protect her from — the internet and social media and the hatred and dehumanizing things that are said on it and then shared to great numbers of people,” Christine McComas said.
“More than anything I want, I want it to act as a deterrent to behavior. … It matters how you act in public life, it matters what you say to people,” she said.
Dave McComas expressed the hope that more parents will instill in their children the importance of respecting others.
“Grace is in our hearts every day,” he said.
Zirkin said he plans to meet with U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a friend from the congressman’s days in the state legislature, to discuss the potential for a national push to crack down on cyberbullying.
Although the measure passed the General Assembly unanimously — 45-0 in the Senate and 137-0 in the House — it was opposed by the ACLU of Maryland.
Toni Holness, the group’s public policy director, said in February that the bill fails to adequately define what constitutes a “true threat.”
Holness also was concerned about other words in the bill that had not been defined: encourage, provoke, sexual information, intimidating, tormenting.
“There’s way too much prosecutorial discretion in these terms that are not defined,” she said.
“We’re not interested in charging children or putting them in jail or fining them,” Christine McComas said. “What we want to do is change the behavior so the internet is more kind.”
Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.
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