A bill that would make it a crime to "cyberbully" a child passed the House on March 12, but not before Republicans raised concerns about the legislation's punishment structure, which makes it a greater crime to target certain groups of people.
House Bill 1131 would create misdemeanor penalties for those who commit cyberbullying — cases involving children who are bullied through technological platforms that include social media.
The legislation aims to address a growing trend where kids are subjected to teasing and humiliation through cell phones or the Internet, which can lead to emotional problems in children and can sometimes result in suicide.
"Many of the children who are bullied never tell anybody," said Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, a bill sponsor. "If there is a child out there who is bullied, please tell an adult. Don't suffer that emotional harm alone."
Fields' bill drew large bipartisan support, having cleared the House following a 54-10 vote. But Republicans who voted for the bill said they hope the Senate takes up concerns over what some feel is a fairness issue in the legislation.
The bill would make cyberbullying a class 2 misdemeanor, but creates a greater, class 1 misdemeanor penalty in cases where the victims are targeted because of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or physical or mental disability.
A class 1 misdemeanor conviction carries with it a possible jail term of 6 to 18 months and fines that can reach $5,000. Those found guilty of a class 2 misdemeanor face the possibility of spending between three and 12 months behind bars and a fine of up to $2,500.
Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, said there was "no reason to make a distinction" based on particular groups of victims, and tried to amend the bill to punish all cases under a singular class 1 misdemeanor.
"Let's not make some victims lesser victims," Gardner said.
Although his amendment failed, Gardner did end up voting for the bill, saying, "I am not one to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good."
Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, also voted for the bill, calling cyberbullying a serious issue that needs to be addressed. But McNulty also supported Gardner's amendment and said that he hopes the Senate will address Republican concerns.
"Every child deserves equal protection under the law," McNulty said. "This bill denies equal protection."
Democrats pushed back against Republican arguments, saying that certain groups of people are harmed more than others, when it comes to be bullied.
House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, who is gay and who was once a special education student, said that being bullied "hit in my core in a different way that it did other people."
"You're already a marginalized person, you feel that way," Ferrandino said. "You already feel like you're an outcast."
Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, got riled up at Republicans' assertions that all bullying is created equal.
"At some point, we have to recognize in this General Assembly that racism, discrimination based on color or national origin, things of that nature, are unacceptable," Salazar said. "… So it's about damn time … it's about time that the Colorado General Assembly recognize that we have to have these protected characteristics because we have kids who are being targeted for cyberbullying because of their innate characteristics."