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Long IslandPolitics

Suffolk bill would make cyberbullying a crime

Alexis Pilkington was a popular athlete from West

Alexis Pilkington was a popular athlete from West Islip who had already landed a soccer scholarship to college. Credit: AP

Harassing, taunting and bullying a minor online would become a crime in Suffolk County under new legislation proposed this week by Legis. Jon Cooper.

Cooper's bill would make it a misdemeanor to repeatedly abuse a child on the Internet, in e-mail or in text messages.

Cooper (D-Lloyd Harbor) said he was spurred to act after the death of a Massachusetts girl who committed suicide after vicious bullying from her classmates.

"I've heard so many stories of abuse and harassment of children and sometimes it gets out of hand and it leads to the horrendous cases we've been reading about," he said. "I've got five kids; I can't imagine the pain and anguish of a family that loses a child in this way."

But experts said the law - like anti-cyberbullying laws in eight states and anti-cyberharassment statutes in 38 - likely won't have much effect on miscreants' behavior online.

"Most research suggests that teens aren't really deterred by the laws," said Justin Patchin, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who is co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. "They're more likely to be deterred by what their friends think or what their parents say."

Indeed, the parents of Alexis Pilkington, the West Islip girl who committed suicide last month after anonymous messages about her were posted to a social networking site, said last week they do not believe the comments about her played a factor in her death.

"I think any legislation that could curtail or deter online harassment is nothing but a good thing," Alexis' father, Thomas Pilkington, 48, said.

But Pilkington, a deputy inspector with the NYPD, said the practicalities of enforcing such a law - identifying anonymous Internet posters, for example - would likely render the law ineffective.

"I don't think it would be a deterrent," he said. "Unless they fund law enforcement agencies to have the full capacity to track these individuals, it's going to be extremely taxing on law enforcement."

Patchin said there is no such thing as "true anonymity online." He said law enforcement could subpoena Internet service provider records to find out from which computer a specific comment originated. For a misdemeanor crime, law enforcement does not typically commit that type of effort and resources, he said.

And Patchin said there have been no successful prosecutions using anti-cyberbullying laws. No such laws exist in Nassau County, officials said.

In Massachusetts, six teenagers from South Hadley High School have been charged in connection with the death of a 15-year-old girl. She committed suicide after months of what prosecutors called "unrelenting" bullying that included insults and threats and through cell phone text messages.

Tina Meier, whose state, Missouri, passed a law in 2008, two years after Meier's daughter, Megan, 13, committed suicide after being cyberbullied, said Suffolk's law would have to satisfy several conditions to be effective.

"You have to bring to the legislature real stories of real events," she said. "A lot of the time they're going to be hit with the freedom of speech issue. Real lives are being damaged. Freedom of speech was not intended to harass and threaten somebody."

The Missouri law, a felony, adds communication over a computer or electronic devices to the existing anti-stalking and harassment statute.

Cooper and his co-sponsors argue that publicity surrounding the legislation will itself lead to change in behaviors.

"To me, it's more of a message thing," said Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore). "I think prosecution is going to be challenging just because of the nature of the Internet."

The measure will go to a legislative public hearing on May 11. It is also sponsored by Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) and Edward P. Romaine (R-Center Moriches).

Anti-cyberbullying proposals have been introduced in the State Assembly and Senate by Assemb. Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) and Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City), though neither has emerged from committee.

Federal legislation was introduced in Congress by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), though it too remains stalled in committee.

"Even when schools do have policies against bullying, they are often unable to enforce those rules when bullying occurs over the Internet instead of on school grounds," Sanchez said. "It's a shame that recent suicides are the loudest voices for change in the way we think about bullying and cyberbullying."

Cooper said bullying on message boards and on social networks is just as bad as traditional bullying on playgrounds.

"When I was growing up, someone would write a letter and post it at school and 10 kids would see it," he said. "Now you post it on MySpace or Facebook and the entire world can see it and it never comes down. It's much more ominous now and much harder to control."

With Zachary R. Dowdy and Andrew Strickler

 

 

What Suffolk's anti-cyberbullying legislation would do

 

MISDEMEANOR. Make a misdemeanor "committing acts of abusive behavior over a period of time by" electronic communications or Internet postings.

TYPES OF BEHAVIOR. Abusive behavior includes "taunting, threatening, intimidating, insulting, tormenting, humiliating" and posting real or modified sexually explicit photos or information.

AGE OF VICTIM. The victim must be a minor in Suffolk County.

PENALTIES. Penalties and fines for conviction of a misdemeanor cyberbullying charge would be up to a year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.

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