Cyberstalking bill awaits vote by Ohio Senate

Victims of online harassment would have more means of legal recourse under a bill overwhelmingly passed by the Ohio House earlier this month.

House Bill 74 aims to broaden the scope of Ohio’s current telecommunications harassment bill beyond individual protection from direct threats. The new law would make it illegal to cause mental distress to a victim or to make a victim believe he or she might be physically harmed.

It also expands on the concept of a direct victim, adding the immediate family or households members of an individual under the umbrella of protection.

The law would likely be a good thing for law enforcement officials, giving them more authority and guidance when it comes to the rapidly changing role of online communication, said Marietta Police Capt. Jeff Waite.

“Social media has completely changed interaction and communication forever. People will say things on social media that they wouldn’t say to your face. We constantly deal with changes and updates in technology,” said Waite.

The department has investigated a multitude of complaints based on social media and electronic messaging, but typically direct threats of violence are the only things that can be criminally pursued.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Marlene Anielski, R-Walton Hills, in response to a constituent who was told law enforcement could not do anything about the hundreds of threatening emails and faxes a neighbor was directing at her and her husband.

“The town that they lived in, including county officials, said they could not do anything unless there was physical harm, so that was why we added mental distress,” explained Anielski.

Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, missed the vote on the bill while attending a conference in Washington D.C., but would have voted in favor of it, he said. The state cyberstalking laws are in need of updating, he said.

“The idea of cyberstalking is one that has become much more high profile with the deaths of recent teenagers,” said Thompson.

A 12-year-old girl recently committed suicide in Florida after being aggressively bullied online by two classmates. Aggravated stalking charges were brought against two alleged bullies but later dropped.

Linda Hart, whose children attend Fort Frye High School, said she thinks students would be less likely to bully in the first place if law enforcement involvement in such cases become the standard.

“If students knew law enforcement was going to be involved in it, I think you’ll see less of it. I think law enforcement being involved (in Florida) made people aware of it,” she said.

Giving law enforcement more options would also be helpful for the schools, said Will Hampton, Marietta Middle School principal and interim Marietta City school district Superintendent.

“It’s hard for us to enforce some of the things that happen at home. It’s hard to find where our reach or our limits are anymore because so many things happen at home but come back to school,” said Hampton.

Fort Frye Local school district Superintendent Stephanie Starcher has encountered the same issue.

“The challenge for the school district has been when the problem is not occurring during the school day or at a school function,” she said.

As an educator and a parent, Warren Township resident Andy Biddinger said he can see how both positive and negative aspects to the law.

“I think if anytime you have more people involved in working on a problem, usually you find a solution quicker. But at the same time, the more police get involved with situations, the harder it is to keep problems to what we would call a reasonable solution,” said Biddinger, a Warren High School teacher whose son attends Warren Elementary.

Often laws against bullying are reactionary in nature and fail to give educators, parents, and children the resources to effectively fight the problem, he said.

That was one of the qualms Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, had with House Bill 74.

“I think there are some definitions in the bill that are vague enough that it could cause some problems that are unintended,” said Phillips, one of three representatives to vote against the bill.

Phillips said she worries the broad scope of the law could turn matters that need to merely be teaching and parenting moments into legal matters. For example, the law needs to better delineate the line between nuisance and harassment, she said.

“My hope is by having some people vote against it, the Senate will consider taking a look at tightening that language up,” she said.