Prohibition against threatening texts, emails advanced

Sending a text message with the intent to threaten someone would be a criminal offense under a bill that received first-round approval in the Legislature Feb. 28.

Sen. Robert Clements
Sen. Robert Clements

Under current law, a person commits the offense of intimidation by telephone call if he or she telephones someone with the intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend. The offense is a Class III misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of three months in prison, a $500 fine or both.

LB773, sponsored by Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood, would amend the law to include intimidation by electronic message, such as a text message or an email. He said it also would remove the terms “terrify,” “annoy” and “offend” to address First Amendment concerns.

Clements said he introduced the bill after the Plattsmouth Police Department notified his office of several reports of acts of intimidation, some of which used text messages, emails and instant messages.

“LB773’s main purpose is to make sure law enforcement and prosecutors have the necessary tools to address intimidation, threats and harassment that have migrated from telephone calls to new forms of direct electronic communication like text messages, email and other forms of electronic communication,” he said.

A Judiciary Committee amendment, adopted 35-0, would replace the term “electronic message” with the more inclusive “electronic communication,” which is “any writing, sound, visual image or data of any nature that is received or transmitted by an electronic communication device.” The amendment also would add a requirement that the call or communication cause significant distress.

Clements introduced a floor amendment, adopted 34-0, that would remove that requirement. He said the terms “intimidate,” “threaten,” and “harass” are all well defined in statute, but “causes significant distress” is not. The term is subjective and would make it difficult for prosecutors to prove a case, Clements added.

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks spoke in support of the bill, saying that it recognizes that methods of intimidation and harassment have changed since the current law was passed in the 1970s.

“Modern technology has changed the ways that we interact with one another,” she said, “so our statutes need to be updated to reflect the new forms of communication and thus new ways in which people now bully one another.”

Children in particular are susceptible to bullying via these new forms of communication, Pansing Brooks added. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 28 percent of U.S students in grades 6 through 12 have experienced bullying, much of it done using electronic communication, she said.

The bill advanced to select file on a 38-0 vote.

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