How a cyberbullying law in Colorado was tweaked to be more effective
Updated: 07/25/2015 06:15:10 PM MDT DenverPost.com
In the often inhospitable realm of cyberspace, there's a new sheriff in town — in the form of a revised Colorado's harassment statute that backers hope will keep the most vicious electronic communications from inflicting tragic damage.
Those changes now expose "cyberbullies" to a misdemeanor charge that carries a possible fine of up to $750 and up to six months in jail. Lawmakers sought a response to a problem that has taken a particular toll among kids and young adults.
"It truly is a multifaceted, complex problem that is not only going to be solved through legislation or through criminalizing people," said Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, one of the bill's sponsors along with Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora. "But obviously it's a cultural and social problem that needs solutions as well."
More than 30 states have adopted various cyberbullying laws over the last few years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Colorado's measure, named "Kiana Arellano's Law" after a Highlands Ranch teen who attempted suicide after being cyberbullied, took effect July 1. Kristy Arellano, Kiana's mother, testified on behalf of the legislation. Her daughter, once a cheerleader, now is paraplegic and unable to speak.
The changes come about a year after initial efforts to pass a cyberbullying bill buckled under the weight of criticism that it was overly broad. When the 2014 attempt failed, lawmakers asked the state Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to review the issue and make recommendations.
The resulting subcommittee, which included representation ranging from law enforcement to educators to the American Civil Liberties Union, examined dozens of other cyberbullying laws around the country and said that Colorado needed to tweak existing harassment law.
Lawmakers adopted that approach.
"One of the problems we were having in the 2014 bill was how you strike that balance, how you find that sweet spot where you're respecting of both First Amendment free speech as well as Fourth Amendment (unreasonable search and seizure) rights," said Newell.
She noted two important distinctions of the new law: The cyberbullying has to rise to criminal intent to alarm, annoy or harass; and it can be either direct or indirect. In other words, an online posting need not be sent directly to an individual victim to fall under the statute.
"Research shows that cyberbullying tends to be more vicious because of the anonymity of it, and as a result of that viciousness, we often see tragic consequences," said Kevin Paletta, Lakewood police chief and chairman of the subcommittee.
He added that the clarified harassment law allows for distinction between immature choices kids make and criminal conduct.
"We certainly don't want to criminalize everything a person does that's part of the typical growing up process," he said. "On the other hand, there are some instances we can all point to and agree are extreme, and the damage done is extreme."
Cyberbullying infractions should be viewed in a broader context, said Christine Harms, director of Colorado's School Safety Resource Center.
"It's not unusual that kids being cyberbullied know who is bullying them," she said, "because they are experiencing the in-person bullying also."
According to the 2013 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, 22.7 percent of middle school students said they had been electronically bullied, and 15.1 percent of high school students said they had been electronically bullied during the past 12 months.
With the legal cyberbullying language in place, Harms would like to see parents and schools talk about online rules — "netiquette" — and stress that people shouldn't do or say anything in the cyber world that they wouldn't say or do in person.
"The Internet got away from us adults, and kids got to use it more quickly than we were prepared to talk to them about what rules we should have," she said. "We have to get back to reminding people how to be nice to one another, to be respectful."
Whether the revamped law will be a small first step or a measure sufficient to address the issue will depend on what happens over the next couple of years, Newell said.
"But for right now," she added, "it's a great place to start, to see if we can either intervene with those who are bullying or maybe perhaps get some prevention work going on the cultural and social side."
Kevin Simpson: 303-954-1739, email@example.com or twitter.com/ksimpsond