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Wis. county cyberbullying ordinance can’t hold up

Tyler Groves, Opinion Writer
December 4, 2012
Filed under Opinion

Vernon County of Wisconsin recently put into place an ordinance making cyberbullying illegal.

According to the Green Bay Press-Gazette, the ordinance is against sending electronic information with the intent to annoy, offend, demean, ridicule, degrade, belittle, disparage or humiliate any person and which serves no legitimate purpose.

The ordinance fines perpetrators from $50 to $500, plus persecution costs. Those that can’t pay the fines can find themselves in jail for up to 30 days.

The ordinance is much like harassment laws already in place, such as sexual harassment laws in the workplace. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive environment. Just like the Vernon County cyberbullying ordinance, it doesn’t punish those for gentle teasing or casual joking.

However, it’s curious things done electronically require a separate law. Wouldn’t bullying in person be the same as on the Internet?

What would make more sense is if the current laws regarding harassment just penciled in cyberbullying. It almost seems like this ordinance is  there to scare some local children the county’s been having problems with. Cyberbullying is a problem everywhere, not just in Vernon County.

Societies everywhere have been trying to tame bullying more and more lately, and for good reason.

According to an article from Canadian Newswire, at least one in three adolescent students have reported being recently bullied, and 40 percent of surveyed Canadian workers experience bullying on a weekly basis.

Repeated harassment in the forms of teasing, name calling, hitting and spreading rumors has a long-term impact on people’s physical and mental health. Bullying can lead to anxiety, depression and even suicide in extreme cases.

Cyberspace makes the problem of bullying even worse since it allows people to harass others in their own home.

But even with a mountain of good intent, the idea of making cyberbullying illegal overall is a bit absurd. Not that cyberbullying is a good thing or that freedom of speech demands it to be legal, it would be nearly impossible to enforce.

Even if each sheriff’s department had its own Internet lurker monitoring Facebook and other forms of social media, there would be no way to keep people from being abusive to others.

Things are a little different on the Internet than in real life. Messages can be deleted, said anonymously and insults tend to be much more provocative.

Imagine the conversation between a 50-year-old police officer and a 13-year-old boy who has been suspected of cyberbullying.

Chances are the young man would know a lot more about computers than the officer. He could easily say, “My account got hacked, that wasn’t me” or any other such lie, and the police officer would have no means to prove him wrong.

If anything, making cyberbullying illegal will keep a few people from hitting send on a raunchy message, but it won’t affect abusive teens or Internet stalkers.

Because of the improbability of enforcing bullying legally, many programs have been formed to give people a voice.

Programs like Make Beats not Beat Downs present an alternative help to bullies and the bullied youth through all aspects of art, music and education. The non-profit uprising focuses on youths helping youths.

This is a great idea because children and teens are more likely to listen to an equal than to an authority figure. It is more effective to change the ideas of people through persuasion and education than to simply announce this is how things need to be or else.