CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Cyberbullying minors would become a crime in West Virginia, with penalties up to a $500 fine, a year in jail or both, under legislation passed on Monday by the House of Delegates.
The bill, supported by the West Virginia PTA, would outlaw using a computer or network to harass, bully or intimidate anyone under 18. It would specifically prohibit building a fake profile for or posing online as a minor in emails, chat rooms or social media platforms.
Underage violators would be prosecuted as juveniles subject to findings of delinquency, unless prosecutors think their crimes belong in adult court, Judiciary Committee Chairman John Shott said. The bill also would outlaw doing anything online that would reasonably cause a minor physical harm, damage his or her property or create a reasonable fear of either.
“This bill is about child safety,” said Delegate Jill Upson, a Charles Town Republican. She recounted the 2012 suicide of 15-year-old Grace McComas in Maryland after a year of online bullying. McComas’ family advocated for the measure.
Upson read a letter from McComas’ mother to West Virginia lawmakers, saying the harassment amounted to “gossip and hatred at the speed of electronic media” and began after her daughter was subpoenaed as a witness against someone in an unrelated court case. Personal attacks included Facebook and Twitter posts like “I hate, hate, hate you” and “Kill yourself.”
The House passed the bill, 94-1. It goes next to the Senate.
Delegate Pat McGeehan, a Hancock County Republican, said he voted no because he makes it a point to vote against proposed new laws that could be construed to violate or micromanage free speech. While good intentions are behind this one, these types of laws “can sometimes be used by government officials to go after private citizens they may personally dislike,” he said.
Last year, the Legislature passed and Gov. Jim Justice signed a new law aimed at so-called online “revenge porn.” The law makes it a crime to intentionally display publicly, distribute or threaten to disclose sexually explicit or intimate images of another person without their consent. It established a misdemeanor subject to fines of $1,000 to $5,000 and up to a year in jail and a felony for a second offense.
In one recent case, a 19-year-old was charged with the misdemeanor in Morgantown, arraigned and released on $5,000 bail in January.