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Lawmakers Seek Punishments For Cyberbullying, Including Jail

DENVER (AP) - A high school student who was the victim of repeated bullying on social media looked on from her wheelchair Friday as the Colorado House advanced legislation that would create new criminal penalties for online harassment.

The sponsor of the bill, Aurora Democratic Rep. Rhonda Fields, is naming her proposal after Kiana Arellano, a Douglas County high school cheerleader who tried to hang herself in 2013. Her father found her in their garage and tried to resuscitate her while waiting for emergency responders who eventually saved her.

But the oxygen deprivation resulted in a severe brain injury that has left her a paraplegic and unable to talk. As lawmakers debated the Fields' proposal, she watched from a side of the House chambers.

"We need to break the cycle of hate on the Internet," said Fields, who recounted Arellano's story and the hateful messages she received from classmates goading her into attempting suicide.

Fields' bill would make cyberbullying a misdemeanor harassment charge punishable by as much as $750 in fines and up to six months in county jail.

Lawmakers gave initial approval to the bill on an unrecorded voice vote despite concerns about how the proposal could affect free-speech protections. A final vote as soon as next week sends the bill to the Senate.

Since 2006, nearly three dozen states have enacted legislation to address cyberbullying in various ways, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado tried last year with a proposal also carried by Fields, but it was changed into a study in the Senate after getting approval in the House.

The concerns with the bill last year mirror those raised this year, mainly that the proposal can be interpreted broadly and over-criminalize youth while also potentially infringing on free speech rights.

Rep. Tim Dore, a Republican from Elizabeth, said he doesn't want to "unintentionally chill speech."

"And while we don't want anybody bullying or harassing or causing harm to another, we also have to make sure that we protect speech," Dore said.

Fields noted there are limitations on free speech. "Having a right of freedom of speech doesn't give you the right to harass someone," she said.

Kristy Arellano, Kiana's mother, told lawmakers in her testimony supporting the bill that "laws have not kept up with the technology."

"Even though I had proof that this bullying had gone on for about a week, we could not pursue criminal charges against the person who did these posts," she said.

By IVAN MORENO, Associated Press

(© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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