Although it is hailed as one of the toughest in the country, New Jersey’s cyber-harassment law fails to protect victims from the very conduct that the law criminalizes. Under the current NJ law victims of cyber harassment are unable to obtain restraining orders against their tormentors because the law does not apply to NJ’s domestic violence statutes. A bill approved recently by the Assembly Women and Children Committee, however, seeks to change this legal loophole.
Under the bill, cyber-harassment, such as threatening someone or sending lewd material, would constitute a crime and would be a new basis for issuing a restraining order under NJ’s domestic violence law. The legislation would permit temporary and permanent restraining orders under the “Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 1991” if the person requesting the order is a victim of cyber harassment. The bill would ban offenders from using electronic devices and social media to threaten to injure or commit any crime against a person or his property or send obscene material to or about someone.
Under NJ’s current cyber-harassment law non-minor offenders of cyber harassment laws are subject to a sentence of up to 18 months in jail and a maximum fine of $10,000. If the offender is over 21 and impersonating a minor, however, the jail sentence and fine increase to up to five years in prison and up to $15,000. Under the current NJ domestic violence law, there are 14 offenses that constitute domestic violence and make victims eligible for restraining orders. If the new cyber-harassment bill is signed into law, cyber harassment would become the 15th offense to constitute domestic violence, and an offender would not only be subject to a jail sentence and fine, but also to having a restraining order taken out against him by his victim.
According to Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt (D-Voorhees) “using email, Facebook, or any other Internet site as an access point has become a tool for perpetrators,” and adding internet harassment to the list is necessary and will strengthen protection for domestic violence victims. Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) says that the bill will address what he calls a “loophole.” Assemblyman Coughlin notes that “we’re all very familiar with the notion of being harassed on the Internet or [other social media outlets], and we need to protect victims.”
Still, opponents of the cyber-harassment law claim that the law is too vague and runs afoul of the First Amendment. According to The Foundation of Individual Rights in Education the terms “indecent” and “harass” can both be read broadly under the law, and accordingly, the law may operate to criminalize a significant amount of speech that is protected under the First Amendment.
While it remains to be seen whether the cyber-bullying bill that makes victims eligible for restraining orders against their tormentors will be signed into law, New Jersey lawmakers have made a concerted effort to combat bullying in recent years. In January 2011, Governor Christie signed the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” which is among the toughest anti-bullying laws in the country. The measure gained momentum after the tragic death of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide shortly after he learned that his roommate used a webcam to broadcast a private romantic encounter between Clementi and another man.