Cyberbullying could soon become a felony in Michigan, with a sentence of up to 10 years if it causes the death of a victim.
This bipartisan-supported bill, House Bill 5017, passed 91 to 17 in the House of Representatives March 22, with 88 percent of Republicans voting “yes” and 76 percent of Democrats voting “yes.”
The bill is currently in the Senate.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Peter Lucido (R-Dist. 36), who said while speaking before the House Law and Justice Committee, “I’m a firm believer in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but hate speech, threats and intimidation are not universally accepted forms of free expression.
“We’re seeing more and more of this kind of behavior online and it’s not free speech. It’s permanently damaging lives and encouraging suicide among the young and old alike. It has no boundaries and Michigan is overdue to establish limitations.”
In the bill, “cyberbullying” is defined as posting a message or statement in a public media forum about any other person, if the message is intended to place a person in fear of bodily harm or death, and expresses an intent to commit violence against the person, or if the message is intended to communicate a threat knowing that it will be viewed as a threat.
Rep. Joe Graves (R-Dist. 51) and Rep. Hank Vaupel (R-Dist. 47) voted in favor of the bill.
Graves said, “Cyberbullying is an issue that is all too common in today’s world. The people who cyberbully others should be held accountable. HB 5017 doesn’t restrict anyone’s ability to communicate. Rather, it simply creates a punishment for communication that crosses the line and causes harm to another person.”
Genesee County Undersheriff Chris Swanson said, “Genesee County Sheriff Robert Pickell supports anything that protects the victims of bullying. Cyberbullying has been a long-standing platform where people can hide and be anonymous. People can anonymously attack others without any factual basis.”
Swanson said this legislation is enforceable if there’s enough probable cause that a crime has been committed. Although, it will have to be on a case-by-case basis because, “What’s bullying to me might not be bullying to you,” he said.
He also questioned if the law will require the victim to say “stop” to the cyberbully in order for it to be prosecutable.
“There is free speech, but it becomes bullying when the intent of the sender is to cause harm to another individual … when that person wants to self harm,” he said. “It’s no different from bullying in school. It’s about protecting people.”
A first offense would be punishable by up to 93 days in imprisonment and/or a $500 fine. If the cyberbullying causes serious injury, the punishment is worse.
A person who violates the law “in a manner that involves a continued pattern of harassing or intimidating behavior and by that violation causes serious injury to the victim is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than five years, a fine of not more than $5,000 or both,” according to the bill.
If the cyberbullying causes the death of the victim, it is a felony punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment and/or a $10,000 fine.