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Some teens want to criminalize cyberbullying Add to ...

Katie Neu takes her high school courses from home. It's been two years since she walked out of her high school after being cyberbullied so much that she felt forced to leave.

Neu, 16, was threatened over instant messaging programs. Her peers called her names in e-mail after rumours about her spread around the school. She received messages and e-mail accusing her of faking a broken arm.

"I had enough of people trying to hurt me and harass me," said Neu from her home in Listowel, Ont. "I'll probably have to do it myself, but I want to see all forms of bullying illegal."

An announcement from the Canadian Teachers' Federation calling for the addition of cyberbullying to the Criminal Code has brought Neu's hopes one step closer to reality.

On July 12 the federation voted unanimously to endorse a policy that says cyberbullying should be a criminal offence.

"We have [harassment through]telephone in the Criminal Code ... we have harassing people by letters. We say the Criminal Code is silent on new technology," said Emily Noble, president of the federation.

"The laws in the Criminal Code were all written years ago, let's update it where it's necessary."

But Michael Deturbide, a law professor and associate dean at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said criminalizing cyberbullying could be a difficult process, and it would be difficult to know where to draw the line.

"I'd be very careful about making online bullying a crime," said Deturbide. "The most severe forms of cyberbullying are already captured in the Criminal Code."

Deturbide said it's already illegal to harass anyone to the point where they fear for their safety, or to spread false rumours that can lead to defamatory action.

He said that while cyberbullying is offensive and unpleasant, it raises issues relating to freedom of expression.

"We do have freedom of expression in Canada and that means sometimes you can say unpopular and even nasty things, and there is a line that's crossed," said Deturbide. "That line is already in the Criminal Code and I'm not quite sure why we need a specific law targeting the Internet."

Robert Frenette, 19, started the website BullyingCanada.ca in 2006.

The issues surrounding freedom of speech and bullying are ones that Frenette has heard before.

"As someone who has been bullied for 11-and-a-half years, I'm not sure how you can express yourself through bullying," he said.

"It's something that should have been done a long time ago," said Frenette of the federation's push to including cyberbullying in the Criminal Code. "If you can get charged for bullying physically you should be able to get charged in regards to the form of cyberbullying."

Frenette was cyberbullied by two girls who threatened him in an online chat room. The next day they sat behind him on the school bus and burned the back of his neck with lighters.

"When I brought it up with the school I kept a copy of the chat log where they [threatened me]" said Frenette. "They said there were no charges that could be laid because it was online. If it had happened in person they could have pressed charges. That was one time when I was let down by the justice system."

University of Toronto social work professor Faye Mishna has studied cyberbullying, and says that one in five kids have been bullied online.

Mishna said her first reaction upon hearing the announcement from the federation was that she needed more information.

"I know that they don't believe in criminalizing it alone," said Mishna, who said the sole act of criminalizing cyberbullying would not be effective.

"It's got to be part of the whole package," Mishna said. "The intervention needs to be in prevention, education."

"The policy we passed is mainly all about education," said Noble. "Education of teachers, parents and students of the new cyber-playground."

Mishna said she thinks it's important for kids to learn what freedom of speech is, and what it's not.

"They might think that it's freedom of speech, but it's important for them to learn what their rights are," said Mishna.

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