Rutgers Student Suicide Renews Debate Over Cyberbullying

The tragic death of a Rutgers University student who killed himself after two classmates allegedly streamed his sexual encounters online has renewed a national debate over cyberbullying, with one member of Congress calling for a law designating it a federal crime.

Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., is looking to reintroduce a bill that in its latest form made cyberbullying a crime punishable by a fine and up to two years in prison. She said in a statement to Friday that she "will not stop" until schools and prosecutors have the legislative tools to combat the problem.

"My only regret is that ... numerous suicides by young people have become the loudest voice for action. The recent suicides in Texas and at Rutgers University are the latest examples of how serious this bullying can be and the disastrous toll that it takes on young people," Sanchez said. The Texas case involved an eighth-grader who killed himself last week.

Sanchez noted that the federal government has laws to protect against stalking but not against online harassment, and she pledged to work with her colleagues on a new cyberbullying bill.

Sanchez' bill, known as the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, had stalled in the House Judiciary Committee before lawmakers adjourned this week to campaign for re-election. The California lawmaker's bill was named after the Missouri 13-year-old who committed suicide in 2006 after a classmate's mother, Lori Drew, pretended to be a teenage boy and tormented her on MySpace. Missouri later adopted a cyberbullying law, and dozens of other states have measures to outlaw online harassment. Drew, though, was not charged under any cyberbullying statute -- and she was acquitted last year on charges of accessing computers without authorization.

The case at Rutgers in New Jersey has generated renewed national outcry. Freshman Tyler Clementi, 18, killed himself by jumping off New York City's George Washington Bridge last week. Prosecutors have since charged two other university freshmen with illegally recording him in a sexual encounter with another man and broadcasting it.

For the moment, the Middlesex County prosecutor's office has charged them with invasion of privacy. Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan said Thursday the state's hate crimes law could also apply, and more charges may be forthcoming.

But some have also suggested the case stands as an example of how the Internet is being used as a tool of torment.

Sanchez's bill would have defined cyberbullying as any "severe, repeated and hostile" electronic communication "with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass or cause substantial emotional distress to a person."

The language came under criticism last year for being too broadly defined. Some worried that under the cyberbullying bill as written, run-of-the-mill articles could be considered illegal.

Sanchez, should she win her race for re-election in November, said Friday she is "open" to working on a new bill "that we can all agree on."

"The old idea that bullying was a harmless rite of passage is wrong -- words hurt, and they hurt much more when repeated in the echo chamber of the internet," she said. "We need to remind people -- especially those in older generations -- that what happens online is very, very real."