Saturday, October 23, 2010

Harassing Texts & Posts Can Land Poster in Jail

by Hayley Peterson

Harassment using text messages or social networking sites could soon be a crime in Maryland if lawmakers approve two bills making their way through the General Assembly.

"In many different schools, Facebook is being used to harass people," said Sen. Bryan Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel, sponsor of one of the bills. "Right now, current law doesn't handle Facebook and Twitter-type postings. We have to advance with our technology."

Lawmakers added e-mail to Maryland's harassment laws in 1998. The law defined e-mail as a message sent electronically from one person -- or one computer's Internet protocol address -- to another, ignoring the prospect of Web site or blog postings, Simonaire said.

His bill would expand the definition of electronic harassment to include making an "Internet transmission or posting with the intent to harass."

The bill would also increase the maximum sentence for electronic harassment from one year to three years and slap on a maximum $5,000 fine -- bringing it in line with Maryland's sentencing for telephone harassment.

Michael Swartz, director of the Maryland Blogger Alliance, said the blogosphere has "matured" and there's no need for such a bill.

"It seems to me three years is pretty excessive for sending a slew of e-mails," he said. "You can ignore e-mail harassment to an extent."

He said enforcing the law would be nearly impossible, because IP addresses can be faked.

Montgomery County police spokesman Capt. Paul Starks said he hasn't dealt with many cases of electronic harassment, but added that enforcing the law might be even easier than telephone harassment because the Internet can provide a "snapshot" -- from date, place and time to what was communicated -- of the alleged crime.

Another bill in the works from Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore, would add texting to the mix of electronic harassment mediums.

Kelley's bill would make harassing a minor through texting, Internet postings or e-mail a misdemeanor with a maximum three-year sentence and a $5,000 fine.

The bill says people may not "make an electronic communication with the intent to terrify, intimidate, or harass a minor, or threaten to inflict injury or physical harm to a minor."

"The Maryland code is outdated with current technology," Simonaire said. "This is just about getting into the 21st century."

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