Wisconsin County Makes Cyberbullying a Crime

Cyberbullying isn’t just wrong in Vernon County, Wisconsin. After this week, electronic messages that annoy, offend or ridicule are now criminal. Yesterday, the county voted to approve the anti-cyberbullying ordinance that was approved by the county board of supervisors last month. The penalty is fairly stiff. If anyone is found guilty of violating the ordinance, [...]

Cyberbullying isn’t just wrong in Vernon County, Wisconsin. After this week, electronic messages that annoy, offend or ridicule are now criminal. Yesterday, the county voted to approve the anti-cyberbullying ordinance that was approved by the county board of supervisors last month.

The penalty is fairly stiff. If anyone is found guilty of violating the ordinance, they could be fined up to $500 and sentenced to a maximum of 30 days in jail. With this move, Vernon is following the lead of other municipalities around the state that have put a similar rule on the books over the last several years.

According to the Student Press Law Center, the text of the new ordinance doesn’t specifically mention students, but according to the Vernon County Sheriff John Spears, they will be the law’s primary targets. He said making cyberbullying illegal in the county will go a long way to helping curb the practice. He added that it would also provide an effective tool in dealing with bullies.

However, not everyone was as optimistic that the rule would make a difference.

Justin Patchin, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, said that he was contacted by the county before the ordinance was passed to give input on it. Patchin said he’s skeptical of the effectiveness of Vernon County’s law as well as those passed elsewhere.

Patchin said that there do not seem to be any incidents where anyone was charged under the anti-bullying measure, which makes judging their effectiveness a difficult task. He thought, however, that Vernon’s measure and similar ones elsewhere weren’t likely to have much of an impact.

Wisconsin already has an anti-bullying measure on the books, though it doesn’t specifically single out harassment that happens over text messages and social media.

Two other state laws have been used in cases of cyberbullying, Patchin said. A 2010 school safety law requires school districts to draft their own policy involving bullying of any type, and the state’s Unlawful Use of Computerized Communication Systems law can be used in criminal cases of bullying through electronic devices. That law criminalizes only“a pattern of conduct composed of a series of acts over a period of time.”

Patchin explained that laws prohibiting cyberbullying were passed in 16 states, so to fill the gap, a number of smaller municipalities drafted measures prohibiting it on their own. Patchin himself believes that criminalizing this kind of conduct is going too far, and the best approach to stop this kind of harassment is to address it informally and on an individual basis.

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