Michigan Bill Links Bullying & Crime

singsingA lawmaker has introduced a proposed bill in Michigan that would make bullying and cyberbullying a misdemeanor criminal offense punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and a jail term of up to 93 days.

Republican State Rep.  Dale W. Zorn’s bill also would permit a judge to require an individual who is convicted of or found responsible for violating the anti-bullying law to “undergo an evaluation by a mental health professional at his or her own expense and to receive counseling or other treatment at his or her own expense if determined appropriate by the court.”

 Rep. Zorn’s proposal is one of  the first if not the first proposed bill in the United States to link bullying with crime and mental health. Other proposed legislation in the U.S. is civil  (non-criminal) in nature and seeks monetary damages and/or injunctive relief.

Zorn’s proposed bill addresses both school and workplace bullying. 

 There is precedent elsewhere for treating workplace bullying as a crime. Lawmakers in Victoria, Australia adopted an anti-bullying law known as “Brodie’s Law “that took effect in June 2011 and makes stalking related to bullying a crime punishable by up to 10 years in jail. 

Brodie’s Law was passed after the suicide of Brodie Panlock, 19, a waitress who was subjected to relentless bullying in the workplace. Four co-workers were fined a total of $355,000 (Australian) in 2010 but Ms. Panlock’s parents felt the fine was a slap on the wrist and lobbied for criminal sanctions.

Zorn says Michigan House bill No. 4746 is intended to encourage the rehabilitation of bullies by offering an option for mental health counseling at the judge’s discretion and the bully’s expense. The criminal  charge could be expunged or wiped from the defendant’s criminal record upon successful completion of treatment.

 “The  behavior of bullying has become a societal problem that may need to be eradicated through professional counseling,” he said.

The bill likely would face challenges with respect to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, even though it specifically exempts speech that is protected by federal and state law.

 The bill defines “bully” to mean engaging in one or more of the following behaviors on two or more separate occasions with the intent to frighten, intimidate or harass another person:

     (i) Assaulting or battering that other person.

     (ii) Referring to that other person while in his or her presence with a derogatory or offensive nickname or label.

     (iii) Disseminating false or misleading information about that other person.

It is not clear why the bill prohibits derogatory  or offensive speech in the presence of the individual, but not in the individual’s absence.

In a press release, Zorn said he arrived a the definition of bullying after meeting with school administrators, students, parents, prosecutors and judges.

The bill was immediately referred to the Michigan House Judiciary Committee.