ANNAPOLIS – For more than two decades it has been a crime in Maryland to harass someone over the telephone. Now, some lawmakers want to extend that law to cover harassment via electronic mail.
Bills in the House and Senate would make it a felony to “annoy, abuse, torment, harass, or embarrass” someone through e- mail. Violators could face a fine of up to $500 or three years in jail or both.
Del. Samuel “Sandy” Rosenberg, D-Baltimore and a sponsor of the House bill, told the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that the proposal makes the same activity that’s illegal over the phone illegal via e-mail.
But an official with America Online said that, while he’s all for stopping harassment, he doesn’t “know if the way you go about doing that is to tack a new medium into the regulating scheme of an older medium — phones.”
Todd Lefkowitz, the state public policy counsel for AOL, said he could not comment on this year’s e-mail bill. But he said his company did not support last year’s version, which is very similar to this year’s bill.
Lefkowitz said he is not worried that AOL will ever be held liable for harassing e-mail because, like the phone companies, Internet service providers cannot be held responsible for communications across their lines.
America Online now has 11 million members and transmits 20 million e-mails daily. And regulating content in that kind of volume, Lefkowitz said, is just impossible.
Maryland Assistant Attorney General William Katcef backed the bill, saying it is important to protect people from e-mail harassment.
“It’s appropriate [that] as the technology advances, so should the law’s wall of protection,” he said.
Jayne Hitchcock knows the need for protection.
Hitchcock, a teaching assistant at the University of Maryland University College, told the committee she has been living a “nightmare” since December 1996 when e-mail “bombs” started flooding her electronic mailbox.
She said the harassers then forged e-mail messages to her bosses at University College that defamed faculty and almost got her fired.
“Because there are no laws, the FBI and police couldn’t help me,” Hitchcock said. “This kind of harassment has turned my life upside-down.”
She eventually tracked her cyber-harassers down in New York, where she is suing them.
Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, R-Montgomery, and sponsor of the companion bill in the Senate, said last year’s bill did not pass because of a lack of understanding of e-mail. “We’re going to bring everyone into the 21st century with this bill,” Hogan said.