DENVER – The Colorado House passed a bill Wednesday to protect kids from cyberbullying that drew criticism from Republican and Democrat lawmakers because not all victims would be treated equally.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora) makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor for offenses that are based on a minor’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, physical or mental disability, gender identification or sexual orientation. That offense carries a maximum 18-month jail sentence and $5,000 fine.
Cyberbullying offenses against kids who don’t fit in that protected classification would be deemed as a lesser offense, a Class 2 misdemeanor, which carries a one-year jail sentence and $1,000 fine.
“(Cyberbullying) is meant to hurt,” said Rep. Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch). “When the punishment and hurt is too much to bear, it results in suicide.”
“Every child deserves equal protection under the law,” he said. “This bill denies equal protection.”
Democratic Rep. Cherylin Peniston of Westminster objected to the bill because it creates two classes of victims and criminal penalties. Peniston, who serves on the House Education Committee, recalled the disturbing testimony of a victim named Heidi.
“That took guts, Heidi, it took courage,” said Peniston on the House floor. “You don’t fit any of the special groups, Heidi, and so this bill is not quite right for you.”
Like Peniston, McNulty said he reluctantly voted for the bill with the hope that it would be amended to carry a Class 2 misdemeanor for all perpetrators of the crime against kids.
The House Democrats rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Bob Gardner (R-Colorado Springs) that would have created the same criminal offense to protect all victims of cyberbullying.
The bill applies to minors who are victimized by a person who knowingly uses social media to cause serious emotional distress.
“I cannot go against my principles that all people are created equal,” said Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling), who was one of 10 Republican lawmakers who voted against the bill.
“Why is bullying not the same penalty for everybody?” Sonnenberg asked Fields last week during the House Appropriations Committee hearing.
“When you target someone based on those protected classifications, it’s always perceived as a higher level,” Field said. “It elevates to a level of hate.”
Other lawmakers argued that cyberbullying is a hate crime against all victims, and there is no difference between their emotional pain and suffering.
“At some point you have to recognize in this General Assembly that racism, discrimination based on color or national origin, things of that nature are unacceptable,” said Rep. Joe Salazar (D-Thornton).
“It’s about damn time,” Salazar railed. “It’s about time that the Colorado General Assembly recognize that we have these protected characteristics because we have kids who are being targeted for cyberbullying because of their innate characteristics.”
The bill passed the House, 54 – 10, and will now be considered by the Senate. If the Senate amends the bill to establish the same criminal penalty for all cyberbullying crimes against kids, Sonnenberg said he would then vote for the measure.