Proposed Michigan bill criminalizes cyberbullying

MICHIGAN — A proposed bill would tighten Michigan law on bullying and cyberbullying but may be too broad, free speech experts say.

Calling someone a derogatory or offensive nickname or distributing false or misleading information about the person would be considered bullying under the bill introduced by Rep. Dale Zorn (R-Monroe County) last month. The bill would define a cyberbully as someone who “means to bully through the use of a computer, computer network or computer system.”

The bill would makes bullying or cyberbullying a misdemeanor punishable by up to 93 days imprisonment and a fine of up to $1,000. The bill would also allow court-ordered mental health evaluations and counseling for those convicted of bullying or cyberbullying.

Filed on Sept. 20, the proposal would apply to all citizens, adults as well as children; previous cyberbullying laws in other states have typically targeted only students through school discipline.

The bill specifically says it does not prohibit conduct permitted under the First Amendment, but some of the language is broad enough to apply to protected speech, said Nancy Costello, a law professor at Michigan State and the director of the school’s First Amendment Law Clinic.

Speech that is libelous, incites, slanderous, false advertising, bribery or perjury is not protected by the First Amendment, Costello said. At the same time, the First Amendment does allow what some people would call “distasteful” speech, she said.

“We can make people feel uncomfortable; we can offend people by speech,” she said. “All of that is protected by the First Amendment. What’s not protected is bad behavior and bad conduct. You can’t call somebody a nincompoop and then cross over and encourage somebody to physically harm that person or you can’t then physically threaten that person. That’s what’s illegal.”

Still, Costello said she thought the bill would be met with constitutional objections despite its good intentions. She also said that by narrowing the definition of bullying, the law could be duplicative of other laws already in place.

“People are concerned for an individual being ganged up on and being targeted by a bunch of cyberbullies. I get that and I think that’s wrong too, Costello said. “Unfortunately, there might have to be a certain amount of that tolerated and we might have to monitor that in different ways rather than bringing a law that is broadly tailored to try to stop that, because I think it will be met with constitutional problems.”

Zorn said he did not anticipate the bill would face First Amendment issues when the Judiciary Committee discusses it in November.

“I’m not expecting anything out of First Amendment rights because I think we dealt with that but you never know,” Zorn said. “Certainly, I’m looking at anything that will make this bill stronger and better. I’m certainly interested in that.”

By Bailey McGowan, SPLC staff writer. Contact McGowan by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.