West Virginia bill, “Grace’s Law”, to crack down on cyberbullying

“Grace’s Law” or House Bill 2655 passed through the House Judiciary Committee Jan. 26, which addresses both children and adults who cyber-bully minors. Introduced in February of 2017, the bill defines cyberbullying and establishes it as a criminal offense.

The bill dictates that it is unlawful for anyone to cause a minor to fear for their safety by making a fake profile or website, posing as the minor in an electronic chat room, instant message or email and/or repeatedly following a minor online.

The bill further proposes that it is unlawful for a person to sexually harass a minor online by posting or asking others to post private information about the minor, posting an image of the minor, signing them up for a pornographic subscription, giving out information about the minor with intent to harass or threatening the minor.

The proposed penalty for the crime is jail time of a year, a $500 fine or both.

While there is already a statute in place to criminalize harassing phone calls which has expanded over time to include cyberbullying, this bill more clearly defines internet crimes against minors.

“If we knew (cyberbullying) was going on, even without this statute, it is possible that we could prosecute a juvenile or an adult,” said Margaret Phipps Brown, Cabell County assistant prosecuting attorney and professor. “This gives us another tool in our response to criminal behavior. I think it’s an acknowledgment that social media so permeates society and especially with this group of not-yet adults that its ubiquitous, and we have to be able to address abuses of that system.”

In 2015, 11.5 percent of children between the ages of 12-18 reported being bullied online, according to The National Center for Education Statistics.

When discussing the effects of bullying, Brown also cited United States v. Drew, a court case where a woman targeted the child on Myspace under the alias of a teenage boy.

“(Lori Drew) engaged her daughter’s friend in a relationship,” Brown said. “Broke up in a very ugly way, and the girl committed suicide.”

Drew was charged with three counts of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act but was acquitted.

Ginny Blake can be contacted at [email protected].