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Bullying laws need context instead of just harsh penalties

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POSTED June 7, 2014 12:59 a.m.

Brian McClain is an assistant professor for physical and natural sciences at the College of Western Idaho,

Rob Egan gave up a job with Hewlett-Packard in the six figures to enlist in the Army after 9/11 and was sent as a Ranger with the first wave of Americans deployed to Afghanistan.

Years ago I’d often go on bicycle rides with both of them into the foothills outside of Lincoln, up the valley floor to Marysville and multiple day trips in the Sierra and even Death Valley.

One day when both were 17 and still in high school, Brian showed up for a ride with a big black eye.

The two of them – on an impulse like teen boys are prone to do – decided the day before to go smash mailboxes with a baseball bat while driving a pickup truck down a rural road west of Lincoln. One of the mailboxes fought back. The farmer – tired of such vandalism – had secured his mailbox with a steel cage. The bat hit it and bounced back into Brian’s face.

They had told Brian’s mom something else had happened, probably a crash on a bicycle. They were not caught.

I bring this up to try and interject some sanity into the frenzy to get more and more laws on the books that slap teens with criminal records for the rest of their lives for doing stupid things that in previous generations would have warranted punishment but not a lifelong scarlet letter.

The two of them tended to do sophomoric things, especially Brian. Anyone who has been around teen boys doesn’t need that explained.

I do not condone vandalism nor bullying.

Yet if Brian and Rob were teens today I wonder whether they’d be tripped up on some “get tough” law that would have cost them an opportunity  to go to college or put their lives on the line to honorably serve our country.

The state of New York’s high court this week heard a challenge to a 2010 Albany County law that makes it a crime for people to bully others online, especially children.

It was part of a wave of laws put in place after 13-year-old Megan Meier of Missouri committed suicide when an adult neighbor went online and pretended to be a teen boy on MySpace and sent her cruel messages.

The New York case centers around what then15-year-old Marquan W. Mackey-Meggs did back in 2010. The Cohoes High School student created a Facebook page dubbed “Cohoes Flame Page.” Court documents say that he posted photos of other teens along with graphic and sexual comments. They range from alleged sex partners and specific sex partners to sophomoric comments such as “kisses like a dig” and “cottage cheese legs.”

Police a year later obtained his identity through the IP address. They charged him as an adult with eight counts of harassment and eight counts of violating the cyberbullying law. He was the first to be prosecuted under the 2010 law.

A judge tossed the harassment charges but let the cyberbullying charges stand. The eight counts could have landed him in prison for up to eight years.

In a deal, he pleaded guilty to one count of cyberbullying as long as his lawyers could challenge the law’s constitutionality in a higher court. Mackey-Meggs got three years probation.

Now for the fun part. A judge last year ruled the law was constitutional for speech directed at minors but not speech directed at adults. No differential was made about minors directing such speech at minors.

Bullying of any type is reprehensible. But does that mean criminal courts should be used to severely punish behavior that was once regulated to school yards and not circulated worldwide simply because asphalt encounters have been replaced with the Internet?

Teens that do stupid things should be punished whether it is smashing mail boxes or cyberbullying. But is a one-year prison term per count as under the Albany cyberbullying law justified or even make sense in the context of other laws and crimes?

Brian was always a good kid when he wasn’t prone to engage in moments of stupidity. He could say some  stupid, sophomoric things. Not saying as a teen he ever would have gone as far as the 15-year-old in  New York. But I can’t help but wonder if in less than a second if the Internet had been as evasive in everyday life 40 years ago, if he could have posted a comment that would have had him facing prison time instead of continuing on his path as a contributing member of society.

“Boys will be boys” is no excuse for bad behavior.

Nor is it right that adults equate standalone cyberbullying with sexual assault in terms of how they are prosecuted and maximum prison terms.

 

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209.249.3519.

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