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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana could go from being the only state without a law against bullying to the 20th state to criminalize cyberbullying under a bill legislators considered Tuesday.
Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, proposed a measure in the House Judiciary Committee that would make online harassment of children a misdemeanor offense.
Specifically, House Bill 317 targets bullying on social media by criminalizing electronic communication of any statements, photos or information meant to torment a minor.
Anti-bullying legislation has been proposed in the Montana Legislature five of the last six sessions. Every measure died and was opposed primarily by Republican lawmakers who said school boards should not be forced to adopt specific policy.
"That is not this bill," Hill said. "This bill is not about schoolyard bullying or amending school policies. This bill acknowledges that cyberbullying doesn't just happen in school."
Representatives of the Montana School Boards Association said they oppose a general anti-bully bill introduced last week but support Hill's bill.
Bob Vogel, representing the association Tuesday, said anti-bully school policy is outside the legislature's jurisdiction and should be left to the Montana Office of Public Instruction, which enacted a rule in 2013 directing all school boards to adopt anti-bully policy. Hill's bill, on the other hand, would address sanctioning bullies themselves.
"That's the legislature's rightful role — to put criminal penalties into place," Vogel said after the hearing.
Hill said her cyberbullying bill has a much better chance of being passed out of committee than Rep. Kimberly Dudik's House Bill 284, which is similar to the previous five sessions' proposals.
"It's taken this long to find out what we really needed," Hill said.
The measure was supported by high school class presidents across the state; Bikers Against Bullies; representatives of sheriffs, police officers, county attorneys and rural educators; parents; and victims of bullying. No opponents spoke against the bill.
Montana has the highest rate of suicide in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Supporters said cyberbullying can and does lead to suicide.
Under the proposal, cyberbullying offenders could be fined up to $500 and spend up to six months in jail or, in the case of a minor, in juvenile detention.
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