Lawmakers considered a bill Wednesday that would criminalize cyber bullying in situations where young victims are harmed.
Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, is the sponsor of SB128, which would expand the state’s harassment clause to include electronic bullying of children.
“Bullying doesn’t just happen at schools — it happens everywhere,” Meyer told the Empire after the meeting.
He added that the motivation for introducing the legislation was a grim trend nationwide, which he hopes to curtail in Alaska.
“There’s a lot of youth suicides (in the Lower 48),” Meyer said. “And when they find out why, they’re finding the person was being bullied through Facebook and emails — all these electronic devices that our current harassment bills do not include.”
The bill would criminalize sending an electronic communication that “insults, taunts, challenges or intimidates” a minor in a way that causes “the fear of physical injury, severe mental or emotional injury, or damage to the person’s property.”
Violators could face up to 90 days behind bars. Some questioned if they punishment was too light for more serious cases of bullying.
“We used to say, ‘sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt,’” Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River said. “But you can recover from a broken arm. The wounds to our soul — now, that’s tougher.”
The concept of covering only electronic messages sent directly to a victim didn’t win much support from the committee.
Bethel resident Daisy May Barrera told the Senate Judiciary Committee that actions now defined as bullying have always been considered serious in Alaskan culture.
“The language of our tongue can quickly kill an individual, and I view that equally with electronic communication,” Barrera said. “It’s not any different.”
Arlene Briscoe, an Anchorage-area nurse with special expertise in mental health, said the cyber bullying issue is not unique to rural or urban Alaska.
“We see the torment (daily) that is caused by cyber bullying,” Briscoe said.
She added that the impacts are often suicidal thoughts or attempts, or lingering effects such as depression that can lead to self-harm like cutting or burning.
“Families don’t know how to deal with this kind of bullying anymore,” she said.
Lawmakers should consider including language requiring treatment for the bullies, Briscoe said.
“For first-time offenses, let’s get them somewhere. Let’s suggest them treatment,” she said.
Anne Carpeneti, with the state Department of Law, cautioned lawmakers to be mindful of freedom of speech issues.
“This is a tough thing to draft that protects individuals from the harm of the conduct while still protecting people’s right to express themselves,” she said.
Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski of Anchorage posed the question of broadening the legislation to include victims of all ages, but that idea isn’t likely to gain much traction with the bill’s sponsor, who wants to keep the focus on Alaska’s youths.
“Kids in particular are the most vulnerable,” Meyer said.