Last month, the Maryland General Assembly passed House Bill 396, entitled “Misuse of Interactive Computer Service” and commonly known as “Grace’s Law”, designed to curb instances of “cyber bullying.”
The Bill is named for 15-year-old Grace McComas of Howard County, who committed suicide last year after being bullied online. According to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 25 teens between the ages of 15 and 19 committed suicide in Maryland each year from 2005 to 2009.
Signed into law by Governor Martin O’Malley on May 2, Grace’s law makes it a misdemeanor to use “an interactive computer service to maliciously engage in a certain course of conduct that inflicts serious emotional distress on a minor or places a minor in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury.” A violator of the new law would face penalties of up to a $500 fine and one year in jail.
According to its provisions, the goal of the legislation is to put a stop to intentionally harassing or annoying speech directed towards minors. Critics have pointed out, however, that some of the terms of the bill have not been sufficiently defined to put the public on notice as to what type of speech is prohibited. One of the most vocal critics of the bill, the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”), claims that Grace’s Law is unconstitutional because it is overly broad and infringes upon the First Amendment right to free speech.
According to Sara Love, policy director for the Maryland chapter of the ACLU, the provision of the legislation criminalizing the use of a computer in “a course of conduct that inflicts serious emotional distress” is unconstitutional because its restraint of such a wide range of language makes the bill “too broad to pass constitutional muster.” Loved continued, arguing that, although courts have made exceptions to the First Amendment for threats and obscenity, “you cannot criminalize speech.”
In response to the bill’s opponents, Senator Allan H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican, contended that the new legislation “gives a tool to the state’s attorney. This is something we could prosecute. If we’d had that a year and a half ago, maybe the person who was doing this to Grace would have stopped.”
The outcome of the debate over the efficacy and constitutionality of Grace’s Law is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. In the meantime, the law will remain on the books and alleged offenders will be prosecuted under its provisions. Laws designed to protect minors are taken very seriously by law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges alike. The enforcement of such laws is not taken lightly and penalties associated with violating them can particularly harsh.
The knowledgeable attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience defending individuals that have been charged with crimes involving minors. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC, today.