By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Offending someone online isn’t a crime, but proposed legislation in Pennsylvania would penalize people who take it too far.
Next week, House Judiciary Committee representatives are scheduled to discuss House Bill 2249, which makes it a misdemeanor to impersonate someone online. But the bill has stirred up free speech debates for its potential chilling effect on online communication — or on pranksters.
Now, the bill’s sponsor says specific changes will ensure people who are joking with friends, or exercising First Amendment rights, won’t be prosecuted.
The sponsor, state Rep. Katharine Watson, R-Bucks, said the bill is targeted toward giving law enforcement a way to penalize online bullying.
The law would make it a crime to impersonate someone online through a social media account like Facebook or Twitter, or through a fake email address or text message.
“We’re not going to criminalize innocent, or what I would call stupid, behavior,” she said. “It’s if your intent is to defraud, intimidate, threaten or harass another person and cause them financial or personal harm.”
Some changes to the bill were drawn up after a public hearing held in Bucks County in late August to “tighten up the intent,” Watson said. It would also expand to fictionalized accounts with the same end.
The House Judiciary Committee Majority Chairman, state Rep. Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin, will offer an amendment that narrows the language. It will include an exemption for “works of public interest” such as satire, commentary and parody.
Watson said the crime would be upgraded to a first-degree misdemeanor, from third-degree. That puts the crime on the same level as simple assault, or theft of property up to $2,000.
One other exemption: The law does not apply to law enforcement officers “acting in the course and legitimate scope of their employment.”
Watson had the bill drawn up after a situation in her district in which two students created a fake email address for a teacher, she said, and used it to harass other students.
There was nothing police could do to punish the teens under current law, Watson said, which led to the bill.
In another situation Watson described, teen boys created a fake account for a classmate and gave her address to other boys in lurid Facebook messages.
“That’s beyond a prank,” Watson said. “Your intent is to harm another person. We spell that out in great detail, that’s the difference.”
Initially, the bill drew concern from privacy and freedom advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which said it failed to withstand the test of First Amendment.
But Watson says First Amendment rights won’t be an issue. Ten other states have similar bills, she said, and the language in the proposal is similar to language upheld in other states.
The parody exemption is closely modeled after an existing one in Washington.
House Judiciary Committee Minority Chairman, state Rep. Tom Caltagirone, D-Berks, said he still anticipates discussions about free speech issues when the bill is brought up.
Defining intent to harm, he said, “is a murky, gray area.”
Caltagirone said he was concerned by situations in which young people are pushed over the edge to harm themselves or take their lives due to cyber bullying. But he said he wasn’t sure the bill would prevent that.
Further, he cautioned against too much legislation on individual behavior.
“Do you want to criminalize every stupid interaction young people do?” he said. “Having something offensive online, I guess I can see where that would be a problem. But do we need to criminalize it? I don’t know.”
This isn’t Pennsylvania’s first brush with the sometimes-painful reality of online accounts. In 2010, then-attorney general Gov. Tom Corbett subpoenaed Twitter to learn the identities of two anonymous accounts critical of the administration. Twitter denied the requests.
Correction: This story was edited to reflect Rep.Katharine Watson represents Bucks County.