Lawyer Wants New Law To Hold Parents Criminally Liable For Their Kids' 'Cyberbullying'

from the another-tragedy-and-another-misguided-crusade dept

Lakeland, Florida has yet to erect any cyberbullying laws in the wake of a 12-years-old student's suicide, setting it apart from many other locales which have reacted badly to tragedies by rushing out overly broad and under-thought legislation. Of course, this plus is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd has pretty much turned his office into a vigilante squad after declaring his "zero tolerance" (and made up just right now) policy against cyberbullying.

Judd arrested 14-year-old Guadalupe Shaw for a Facebook post in which she acknowledged bullying Rebecca Sedwick and noted she "didn't give a fuck" that the 12-year-old had killed herself. Judd charged Shaw with aggravated stalking. Not content with that, Judd tasked his investigators with finding something he could charge Shaw's parents with because he was unimpressed with Shaw's unrepentant attitude and her parents' failure to "smash" Shaw's computer into "thousands of pieces" after they found out about her activities.

Lucky for Judd, investigators found something, although that "something" isn't entirely related to Shaw's alleged bullying of Sedwick.

An outspoken Florida sheriff who arrested a 14-year-old girl for cyber-bullying after a younger schoolmate killed herself has filed child abuse charges against her mother, over an unrelated incident.

Polk County sheriff Grady Judd said Vivien Lee Vosburg, 30, punched and shouted obscenities at several children in her care in a violent incident in June that was captured on video [which can be viewed here] and later posted to Facebook by one of the children.
Judd has held Shaw's mother, Vivian Lee Vosburg, on child abuse charges. Meanwhile, Shaw has been released pending a court appearance. Not exactly what Judd was looking for when he first stated his desire to charge Shaw's parents for contributing (I guess) to the bullying of Rebecca Sedwick, but it seems to fit the narrative he's portraying.
"This clearly indicates to us that this appears to be a normal way of life," said Judd, who has declared a "zero tolerance" approach to cyber-bullying in his county. "They're laughing and cussing and throwing the F-bomb around, then they're posting that conduct for all to see. It is clear not only has Vosburg demonstrated she cannot control the behaviour of children she has access to without using violence, but she is obviously not monitoring the social media sites of children she has access to either.

"I'm astounded by this conduct, I'm astounded that it was posted and then I'm even more astounded that it stayed there."

Of Guadalupe Shaw, Judd said: "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
Judd's getting what he wants: a chance to prosecute parents for a child's behavior, all of which is punishment for another child's suicide. But so far, he and his "zero tolerance" have been limited to existing laws. Unfortunately, someone wants to change that, and that someone is none other than George Zimmerman's defense attorney, Mark O'Mara.
Florida attorney Mark O'Mara is stepping onto center stage in the debate over how much parents should be held responsible for children’s cyberbullying. He plans to draft legislation to impose criminal liability on parents who show "willful blindness or gross negligence" to the kind of online torment allegedly inflicted on Rebecca Sedwick, for which two girls were recently arrested.

"If a child kills someone while operating a parent’s car, the parents can be held responsible. If a child kills someone while using a parent's gun, the parent can be held responsible. If a child breaks the law using a computer or cellphone provided by the parent, how is that different?" wrote Mr. O'Mara, who served as defense attorney for George Zimmerman in this year's Trayvon Martin murder trial, in his "O'Mara Law Blog" on Thursday.
O'Mara's terrible idea looks to do more damage than Sheriff Judd's new found interest in zero tolerance policing of cyberbullies. O'Mara's proposal aims to do what Nova Scotia's atrociously bad cyberbullying law does: hold parents responsible for their children's actions. While O'Mara may have point about legal adults having been historically held responsible for certain illegal acts utilizing property owned by parents, this is breaking new ground.

For one thing, while Nova Scotia's law has the (to date untested) potential to hold parents civilly liable for their children's online bullying actions, O'Mara's draft legislation would hold parents criminally liable, a much more negative potential outcome. The attorney believes the law is needed because (in his opinion) parents have become too lax in monitoring and controlling their children's online activities.
O'Mara acknowledged in his blog that "there are substantial obstacles in the way of passing such legislation," but he said, "If parents won't adopt that responsibility, we need to hold their feet to the fire and insist they share liability, especially when their children's actions have life or death consequences."
If O'Mara's legislation is combined with the worst aspects of Nova Scotia's law (purely subjective "standard" for what can be termed "bullying," the entire process is ex parte -- no input from the accused during any step of the process), Floridians are going to have a new nightmare on their hands. Laws like this chill speech by holding normally protected expression to broadly restrictive standards. But all of this is what's come to be expected when people with the power to push legislation and deploy investigators decide to turn a tragedy into a crusade.

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