Lawmakers spar over how best to bully bullies
DENVER — Lawmakers didn’t disagree that cyberbullying has been a major problem for the state’s youth, or that a bill that won preliminary approval in the Colorado House on Monday should become law.
But there was strenuous disagreement over who gets bullied the most, and what level of penalty those bullies should face.
Under HB1131, it would be a class 2 misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail for anyone to cause “serious emotional distress” to anyone under the age of 18 by posting hurtful comments on social media websites or through text messaging.
Doing so has led to some children elsewhere in the nation to go as far as committing suicide over the comments.
But Democrats raised the ire of Republicans when they decided to raise that penalty to a class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a $5,000 fine, if the cyberbullying were the result of hate crimes because of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, physical or mental disability, gender identity or sexual orientation.
Republican lawmakers argued that all children are being bullied through social media, and so any new crime against it should carry the same penalty.
Children get bullied for many reasons other than those so-called protected classes, including children who are skinny, overweight or come from poor families, GOP lawmakers said in arguing to amend the bill to make it a class 1 misdemeanor in all instances of cyberbullying.
“All this amendment does is treat every single kid in Colorado that suffers this kind of bullying the same way,” said Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs. “It’s an absolute no-brainer ... because I think we need to send that message to Colorado kids that we’re going to treat them all equally.”
Democrats, however, argued that people of any age aren’t treated equally, especially if they are so different from others.
That why Colorado has penalty enhancers for hate crimes in other parts of the state’s statutes, Democrats said.
“Not only do we think that cyberbullying is hurtful and hateful, but when you rise to the level of harassing and intimidating and threatening someone because of the color of their skin, because of their religion or because of their sexual orientation, then we need to send the message that that is wrong,” said Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, who introduced the bill.
“What the (GOP) amendment fails to recognize is that this is more than just teenage insults and teenage slights,” added Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver. “This is more than just playground and classroom behavior. This amendment fails to recognize the atrociousness of targeting someone for something they have no control over, something that’s gone on too long in our history as a state and a nation. Something we can say ‘no more’ to.”
Republicans counter that research has shown that there doesn’t seem to be a direct connection between cyberbullying and hate crimes.
According to the Megan Meier Foundation, a group that promotes cyberbullying laws that is named after a 16-year-old Missouri girl who killed herself in 2006 after being bullied on the website MySpace, females were more likely than males to engage in cyberbullying, and white children were more likely than blacks or Hispanics to be bullied on social media.
“The fact is that all races are bullied, and the fact is that girls are more likely than boys to bully,” said Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Colorado Springs. “The thing that hurts my heart more ... you can wake up in the morning and be bullied. You can be bullied for your personality. You can be bullied for what you wear. It does not matter because in this generation and the way the culture is moving, kids bully for any and all reasons.”
The bill requires a final House vote, which could come as early as today, before moving on to the Senate for more debate.