According to a report from the Student Press Law Center, the Vernon County board of supervisors has approved an ordinance that states: “[A]nyone who uses any electronic device ‘to annoy, offend, demean, ridicule, degrade, belittle, disparage or humiliate’ can face up to $500 in fines and up to 30 days in the county jail if the fine is not paid.” Although the law does not specifically target students, Vernon County Sheriff John Spears believes that group will be most affected by the law.
Spears said the county views the law as a new tool to combat cyberbullying. “We felt this would be a tool to help us with education and enforcement in cyberbullying,” Spears said. “We understand some young people make bad choices.”
According to the Cyberbullying Research Center (CRC), Wisconsin has a bullying law that provides for both criminal and school sanctions, but does not specifically include the term “cyberbullying” or include electronic harassment. Justin Patchin, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of CRC, says two other state laws have been used in cases of cyberbullying: a 2010 school safety law requires school districts to draft their own policy involving bullying of any type, and the state’s Unlawful Use of Computerized Communication Systems law can be used in criminal cases of bullying through electronic devices.
However, the latter law only criminalizes “a pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts over a period of time.” Spears, pointing to that fact as a reason why he supports the new ordinance, says he is looking to stop students before a pattern of cyberbullying materializes.
Only 16 states have laws that specifically address cyberbullying, but Patchin said he is seeing cities and counties pass their own cyberbullying laws more frequently. He questioned whether criminal penalties were necessary to limit cyberbullying.
Spears agreed, and said that so far, an informal response has been effective in dealing with instances of cyberbullying. Still, he said that it is better to have the ordinance and not need it than to not have the ordinance and need it.
Source: Student Press Law Center, 12/12/12, By Jordan Bradley
[Editor's Note: In October 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Charlotte Observer, which reported that under North Carolina's School Violence Prevention Act of 2012 (SVPA), it will be a misdemeanor for students to post something online “with the intent to intimidate or torment a school employee.” This expansion of the state’s existing cyberbullying law, that went into effect December 1, 2012, may be the first of its kind in the country. The SVPA builds on a similar law passed in 2009 that criminalized online bullying of a student or a student’s parent or guardian.]