Wisconsin county passes ordinance criminalizing cyberbullying

WISCONSIN — A Wisconsin county has approved a new ordinance that makes it a criminal offense to send electronic messages that annoy, offend or ridicule, following the adoption of similar laws in the county’s municipalities.

The Vernon County board of supervisors approved the ordinance last month, which states that anyone 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.

The law does not specifically target students, but Vernon County Sheriff John Spears said he thinks 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.”

Justin Patchin, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, said that he was contacted by the county before the ordinance was passed to give input on the ordinance. Patchin said he’s skeptical of the effectiveness of Vernon County’s law as well as those passed elsewhere.

“My initial reaction is that I don’t know that it really does much, it doesn’t really change anything,” Patchin said. “I can’t tell you a single incident that I’m aware of where a person has been charged under an ordinance and how that’s played out.”

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, according to research compiled by the Cyberbullying Research Center.

Two other state laws have been used in cases of cyberbullying, Patchin said. 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. That law criminalizes only “a pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts over a period of time.”

One of the reasons Spears said he supports the law is because 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’s seeing cities and counties pass their own cyberbullying laws more frequently. He questioned whether criminal penalties were necessary to limit cyberbullying.

“I think it’s just best if we handle these things informally,” Patchin said. “The bottom line is getting the harassing behavior to stop. My sense is, based on over 10 years of studying this, is that in the vast majority of these cases, informal responses will accomplish that goal.”

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.

“I don’t foresee any problems with it,” Spears said. “We’re going to monitor the situation, and if we need to change to adopt it, we will do that.”

By Jordan Bradley, SPLC staff writer. Contact Bradley by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.