Opinion: Columnists

Gregory Kane: Newtown fever strikes in Maryland

Opinion,Gregory Kane,Columnists

I've never lost a child, neither from suicide nor any other cause. So I can't even pretend to know the pain Chris McComas is feeling.

Around this time last year, McComas had a 15-year-old daughter named Grace, who attended Glenelg High School in Maryland's Howard County. On Easter Sunday of 2012, Grace McComas decided she'd had enough of the nasty, crude, despicable things being said about her on Twitter and Facebook. She committed suicide.

Earlier this month, McComas testified before a judiciary committee in the Maryland House of Delegates chambers. She was there to support a proposed law that would make "cyberbullying" a crime punishable by a one-year prison term and a $500 fine.

"It's the Wild West out there," McComas told the judiciary committee members, "and our children need protection. If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone. And therein lies the horror, because this should happen to no one."

It should not. But is this the answer? We now have someone proposing a law of questionable constitutionality in the name of "protecting our children." Last week we had New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg defending his proposal to ban sugary soft drinks of 64 ounces or larger to "protect our children." When President Obama called a news conference to present his gun control proposals, he had "the children" right there with him, helping him to bolster his point. (Truth be told: The children probably had better arguments than he did.)

As much as it pains me to do this, I have to ask Chris McComas to let go of her pain long enough to answer this question: Just how do we protect "our children" from having people write or say bad things about them on Twitter or Facebook?

McComas, in her testimony, said Grace had been "cyberbullied" and harassed for months on both social media forums. Police and the courts, McComas said, both told her that nothing could be done to stop the comments.

Enter Baltimore County Del. Jon S. Cardin, who sponsored the bill that seeks to criminalize "cyberbullying." That, some feel, might put us on a well-oiled, slippery, anti-First Amendment slope we might want to avoid.

Del. Michael D. Smigiel of Cecil County thinks "cyberbullying" would be better addressed as a civil matter, not a criminal one.

Cardin can't even get the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on his side in this one. Sara Love, the policy director for the Maryland ACLU, doesn't care for Cardin's bill either, which she says violates the First Amendment and Fifth Amendment.

"It's not narrowly tailored," Love said in a story that ran in the Baltimore Sun, "and there are less restrictive alternatives available."

One of those "less restrictive alternatives" is to rely on traditional laws against libel and slander each time someone says or writes something libelous or scandalous about someone else on Twitter or Facebook.

Cardin, McComas and others -- Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who supports Cardin's bill, is among them -- have what I've come to call Newtown fever. Ever since that December tragedy that left 20 children and six adults dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a mania has gripped the nation to pass as many well-intentioned laws as possible to "protect our children," whether or not they will work and whether or not they meet constitutional muster.

Let's just hope that in our fervor to protect "our children," we don't end up deep-sixing the entire Bill of Rights.

Examiner Columnist Gregory Kane is a Pulitzer-nominated news and opinion journalist who has covered people and politics from Baltimore to the Sudan.

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