Colorado legislation deals with cyber harassment

Ivan Moreno, Associated Press

DENVER (AP) -- Colorado lawmakers are trying to crack down on various types of online harassment with proposals that would classify crimes of the Internet age.

One bill would define cyberbullying and make it a misdemeanor. Another bill tackles the trend of so-called revenge porn, when people publish explicit photos or videos of former romantic partners to humiliate them. But while other states have proposed revenge-porn laws that deal with all ages, Colorado's bill would focus only on minors.

Another proposal addresses commercial websites that publish mug shots of people and charge the victims to remove the photos.

The bills introduced this month underscore how legislators are grappling to define new crimes that may or may not be covered under current laws.

"The way people are being bullied today is different. Traditionally, bullying would take place on playgrounds, but now young people are using Facebook and texting as a form of harassing," said Aurora Democratic Rep. Rhonda Fields, the sponsor of a bill to create new misdemeanor penalties for cyberbullying on social media platforms that inflict "serious emotional distress on a minor."

Although people can already face harassment charges for bullying someone with texts or online, Fields said having a specific cyberbullying charge will help law enforcement track frequency of the crime.

Boulder Democratic Rep. K.C. Becker said the legislation that's been introduced so far highlights how "privacy is constantly being compromised" online. Becker is sponsoring the bill dealing with booking photos. It would require the websites to remove booking photos at a person's request, for free, if they were never convicted of the crime they were arrested for. While Becker's bill would not impose criminal penalties, it would allow people to sue if their picture is not removed.

"The websites are very misleading and cause real harm to people. They may not be able to as easily get a job, get a lease. People are making conclusions that aren't accurate," Becker said.

This month, two websites settled a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Toledo and agreed to stop charging people hundreds of dollars to take down their mug shots. Similar laws to what Becker is proposing have passed in Georgia and Utah.

But states that have debated such bills have faced questions of whether the proposals infringe on the First Amendment. That's also a hurdle faced by states that have tried to stop revenge porn. Of several states that have considered legislation against revenge porn, so far only California and New Jersey have passed laws.

Rep. Amy Stephens, a Republican from Monument, said she hopes her proposal will succeed because it focuses only on minors.

"It's very emotionally wrenching," Stephens said. "It's hard for the parents to know what to do, where to go for help." Her bill would make it a Class 5 felony to publish explicit photos of a minor with the intent to "embarrass, coerce, bully, annoy, harm, or cause emotional distress to the victim."

Nancy Leong, an assistant professor of law at the University of Denver, commended Stephens' effort, but said her bill "almost entirely duplicates things that are already illegal in federal law" regarding child pornography.

"I don't see anything that this would criminalize that the federal law would not criminalize," she said.

Stephens insists that legal guidance has been murky when it comes to revenge porn among minors.

"There is a gap in the law that hasn't been defined," she said. Stephens added that her bill would also impose a minimum $10,000 fine upon a conviction, and she intends to amend her bill so that the money will go to help fund the state's Safe2Tell program, which gives students a way to text or phone in threats or suspected violence or bullying.

Tom Raynes, the executive director of the Colorado District Attorney's Council, said lawmakers are pursuing worthy causes, but that his group hasn't decided whether to support the bills. He said his organization will further examine the proposals from Fields and Stephens to make sure lawmakers "haven't crossed over into other crimes that we can charge already."