Virginia Commonwealth University

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New Law Targets Cyberbullying

February 22, 2011

By Matt Birch
Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Think before you text — because sending malicious electronic messages with your cell phone soon could be punishable by law.

Under legislation approved by Virginia’s General Assembly, it would be a Class 1 misdemeanor to use a cellular telephone or other wireless device to transmit a text message that contains “profane, threatening, or indecent language.”

The bill targets teenagers engaging in “cyberbullying” via wireless communications. It would add “texting” to Virginia’s obscene phone call statute.

On Monday, the Senate unanimously passed House Bill 2059, proposed by Delegate Robert B. Bell, R-Charlottesville. It had cleared the House on a 99-0 vote two weeks ago.

“Cyberbullying is a real problem, and makes it harder for students to learn,” Bell said in a statement. “I am hopeful that the law will protect students from those who would threaten or intimidate them through obscene texts.”

The Cyberbullying Research Center, an information clearinghouse operated by criminal justice professors in Florida and Wisconsin, defines cyberbullying as “when someone repeatedly harasses, mistreats, or makes fun of another person online or while using cell phones or other electronic devices.”

About one in five adolescents will be victimized by cyberbullies, according to the center’s research. In extreme cases, authorities say, cyberbullying has driven young people to commit suicide.

Virginia already has a law that says, “Any person who uses obscene, vulgar, profane, lewd, lascivious, or indecent language, or makes any suggestion or proposal of an obscene nature, or threatens any illegal or immoral act with the intent to coerce, intimidate, or harass any person, over any telephone or citizens band radio, in this Commonwealth, is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.”

But the statute doesn’t say anything about texting. HB 2059 would make it clear that obscene or threatening text messages would be illegal.

“This is an example of changing laws to keep up with changing times,” Bell said. “It was originally brought to my attention by a juvenile prosecutor in Culpeper. I also met with my local middle and high school principals, who made it clear that cyberbullying does cause problems in their schools.”

Bell’s measure states that “over any telephone” would cover “any electronically transmitted communication producing a visual or electronic message that is received or transmitted by cellular telephone or other wireless telecommunications device.”

The Senate’s action now sends the bill to Gov. Bob McDonnell for his approval. If signed into law, the legislation would take effect July 1. A Class 1 misdemeanor is punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

“I am hopeful that the law will protect students from those who would threaten or intimidate them through obscene texts,” Bell said.