New Md. law will ban harassment by e-mail Signing of bill completes effort by Del. Rosenberg

May 21, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Jayne A. Hitchcock was becoming a familiar name on the Internet. Too familiar.

By January 1997, you might have found the Crofton woman's name, address and home phone number in news groups for sadomasochists. You could see it on electronic bulletin boards for beer lovers, calling them drunks and morons. Her employer found it on electronic mail messages insulting her co-workers.

Hitchcock -- who says she did not send the messages but suspects who did -- called police to report this high-tech harassment. She was told Maryland had no law under which authorities could charge those suspected of conducting the campaign.

Now, thanks in part to the 39-year-old writer's efforts, Maryland will have such a law. Gov. Parris N. Glendening will sign a bill today making it illegal to use electronic mail to intentionally harass others. Hitchcock, who testified for the legislation before a House of Delegates committee, will be at the State House for the ceremony.

The signing is the product of a four-year effort by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Democrat who represents part of Baltimore and Baltimore County, to fill a gap. Using the phone to harass someone is clearly illegal, but e-mail had fallen into a gray area.

"It's really a case where the code just needs to be brought into the 21st century," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Republican who sponsored the bill in the state Senate.

Rosenberg's victory did not come easily. The bill was one of the last to be approved before time ran out on the final day of the legislative session. The measure was saved by an 11th-hour compromise between backers and Internet service providers.

Under the legislation, using e-mail with intent to harass would be a misdemeanor punishable by a year in prison and a fine of up to $500. It would apply to messages sent from and to Maryland. The law takes effect Oct. 1.

Rosenberg said he became aware of the issue after reading a newspaper article about an e-mail harassment case elsewhere. The first two years Rosenberg introduced the bill, he said, he couldn't convince colleagues it was needed.

He began to make progress last year when Hitchcock -- frustrated by authorities' inability to stop the harassment directed against her -- learned about Rosenberg's effort and agreed to testify before a House committee. This year, Hitchcock returned to tell her story at hearings in both chambers.

She told lawmakers her problems began in December 1996 when she found her e-mail account filled with hundreds of copies of the same nonsensical e-mail message -- known to Internet users as "e-mailbombs." The purpose of such "bombs" is to make the e-mail account useless.

Hitchcock said she changed her e-mail account, but her harassers pursued her to work, sending e-mailbombs to the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), where she teaches.

She said she suspected the harassment was coming from officials of a New York literary agency whose Internet ads she regarded as deceptive. Months earlier, she had lodged a consumer fraud complaint against the agency.

Last year, she said, the harassment escalated in more sinister ways. Messages purporting to come from her began appearing in sex-related Usenet news groups, including one inviting people to call her home phone or stop by her home "to exchange exciting phantasies." She and her husband began receiving about 30 calls a day from as far as Germany.

Hitchcock said her harassers also sent forged e-mail to UMUC under her name denouncing the university's students and faculty as "a bunch of morons" and threatening to resign. "They were doing everything they could to ruin my life," Hitchcock said.

She said the harassers slipped up and left her name and e-mail address in one of the literary agency's Internet ads. It was, she said, the "smoking gun."

In November, Hitchcock filed a $10 million lawsuit against Woodside Literary Agency of Woodside, N.Y., and several individuals in the U.S. District Court for eastern New York. A lawyer for two of the principals in the company, Ursula Sprachmann and James Leonard, said the suit has no merit.

Bill signings

On the final bill-signing day of 1998, Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected today to approve more than 200 bills and veto two.

The bills he is likely to sign include:

A $61.5 million increase in state aid to local public school systems as part of a spending formula aimed at helping low-income children.

Legislation setting up a high-technology scholarship program for Maryland students attending Maryland colleges.

Increased funding for higher education through fiscal 2004.

Strengthened protections for children's safety in custody cases.

Greater rights for adopted people seeking information about xTC their biological parents.

Stronger protections for consumers against cancellation of homeowner's and auto insurance policies.

The governor will veto:

A bill that would eliminate the priority of property tax liens filed by local governments over previously filed liens for private debt.

A bill that would shift the cost of collecting county recordation taxes to the state, at an estimated cost of $5 million a year to the state general fund.

Pub Date: 5/21/98

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