During the Texas Legislature’s upcoming session, Rep. Sheryl Cole hopes to bring the state’s penal code into the 21st century.
Last week, the Austin Democrat filed a bill that would make social media harassment a crime. It’s especially geared toward protecting school-age kids from “indirect” cyberbullying, wherein a tormenter posts obscene content about a victim without directly tagging or messaging them.
An earlier version of the bill was vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2019 because he said it was overly broad. The governor, who in 2017 had signed a bill criminalizing cyberbullying, said in a veto statement that Cole’s initial bill could also sweep in political dissidents who repeatedly criticized elected officials online.
Cole said she was inspired to draft the bill after being approached by a mother and her adolescent daughter, whose cyberbully went unpunished because of the state’s harassment loophole. Another student had posted a sexually explicit video about her and some of her friends. While he was not punished for it, Cole said the “girls have suffered a lot.”
“Once I got into [the bill], it became my number one passion to get it passed,” Cole said. “I was really, really moved by the little girl and her mom.”
Young girls are especially sensitive to how they’re being portrayed, Cole said, and the ones at the center of the video suffered from damaged reputations and declined mental health. One of the victims also attempted suicide.
Children who have been cyberbullied are more likely than those who haven’t to self-harm or attempt suicide, according to DoSomething, a nonprofit for young people with a focus on social change. Around 37% of young people 12 to 17 say they’ve been bullied online, and 83% believe social media companies should be doing more to combat it.
That’s why the bill was so-well received on both sides of the political aisle, Cole said.
Republican state Sen. Joan Huffman helped carry the initial indirect harassment bill during the state’s last legislative session. The Houston prosecutor said she looks forward to working with Cole once more and hopes they will be able to confront the problem thoughtfully and successfully.
"In the age of social media, Texas law has failed to keep up with rapidly changing technology, and, as a result, does not adequately protect Texans from online harassment and abuse,” Huffman said in an emailed statement.
Cole said she hopes that by amending the definition of online harassment, it will help to allay Abbott’s concerns regarding free speech. Moving forward, she’ll work with prosecutors and the governor’s office to make sure the language is tight enough for enforcement.
There’s a “zero-percent chance” that HB 818’s language is final, said Andre Treiber, Cole’s legislative director. They plan for it to be amended in committee with the governor’s approved language.
Treiber said the bill will likely have a Senate companion with matching language to ensure it gets over the “finish line.” If the Senate version crosses first, then Cole would sponsor it.
Either way, they want to act as early as possible to update the state’s definition of harassment, Treiber said.
“It’s definitely a loophole that current harassment and cyberbullying laws in Texas have left open,” he said. “We need to make sure victims are able to get justice.”
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