If a child who has been bullied in cyberspace by your child commits suicide, should you, as a parent, be held criminally liable?
That is the question being asked in Florida, where plans are in the works for legislation that would accomplish exactly that.
The case that prompted the discussion was the tragic death of 12-year-old Rebecca Sedwick, who killed herself by throwing herself off a tower at an abandoned concrete plant. She allegedly had been cyberbullied by another 12-year-old and a 14-year-old.
The 14-year-old allegedly stated on Facebook that she had, indeed, bullied Rebecca, but she didn’t care that Rebecca had died.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd didn’t wait for new legislation to charge the two girls with third-degree felony aggravated stalking.
Attorney Mark O’Mara, who most recently defended George Zimmerman on a murder charge in the slaying of Trayvon Martin, says he will propose that parents who show “willful blindness or gross negligence” regarding their children’s online activities be prosecuted.
No American state has such a law at the moment, but Florida could look northward to Canada in drafting a bill.
The province of Nova Scotia has what it calls The Cyber-Safety Act, which allows for cyberbullying victims to seek civil damages from bullies or their parents if the bullies are minors.
The key to winning a lawsuit under The Cyber-Safety Act is proving that the bullies’ parents were inadequate in supervising their children’s use of electronic devices.
O’Mara likens cyberbullying to a child’s irresponsible use of a parent’s car or a parent’s gun. In both instances, fatalities could result and the parents could be held legally responsible.
Other lawyers, however, have qualms about defining a communications method as a deadly weapon. They see any infringement of the First Amendment, even hurtful words that can cause psychological scars, as an indefensible erosion of the U.S. Constitution.
The parents of one of Rebecca’s alleged bullies don’t believe their little darling could have written such dastardly things. They told ABC News they think someone must have hacked into their daughter’s Facebook page.
Even so, the father admitted, “I feel horrible about the whole situation. It’s my fault, maybe, that I don’t know more about that kind of stuff. I wish I did.”
To top it all, the stepmother of the 14-year-old defendant has been exposed in a video that shows her punching children and screaming foul language.
The woman, 30-year-old Vivian Vosburg, is charged with two counts of child abuse with bodily harm and four counts of child neglect.
It would be easy to see O’Mara as a provocateur in this situation. A lawyer coming off a high-profile legal victory offers what looks like a plausible solution to a heartbreaking problem, thereby heightening his visibility for whatever self-serving career move is next on his agenda.
But, O’Mara would have no platform from which to suggest legal intervention if parents would do their jobs with calm, reasoned concern and consistent enforcement instead of violence or benign neglect.
Think about that the next time you start to complain about government intrusion in your life.