Online impersonators would face charge under bill

Published 4:53 pm Friday, March 4, 2011

Those who impersonate others online would face fines and, in some cases, prison time in Mississippi under a bill that is headed to the governor’s desk.

Senate Judiciary B Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, D-Oxford, said Wednesday that there have been cases in Mississippi and across the country where people used online impersonations to harass or threaten others. He cited the 2006 death of a St. Louis 13-year-old who hanged herself after being the target of a hoax.

“I think you’ll see more of that going on in those social networks,” Tollison said after the bill passed the Senate Wednesday.

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The bill that earlier cleared the House would make online impersonation a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $250 to $1,000, and up to a year in prison. Tollison said the attorney general’s office had asked for the bill.

Rankin County Youth Court Judge Thomas Broome said something needed to be done. Broome said he’s seen several cases involving juveniles who impersonated someone online and “wreaked havoc” in the victims’ lives.

“Once you put that information out there, there’s no way to get it back. It does serious damage, not only to a person’s credibility, but their good name and standing in community,” said Broome. “People see something that’s posted on Facebook and they assume it to be true, when it may not be if somebody created a fictitious character.”

Broome said it’s particularly troublesome for youth.

“They’re in a vulnerable point of their life. It’s the equivalent of how you look in the mirror, except now the mirror is the computer.”

Broome said there are statutes that can be used to charge offenders, but the new legislation provides a “clear avenue” for law enforcement to pursue.

After Gov. Haley Barbour signs it, the bill goes into effect July 1.

In other action, the Senate also passed a bill giving Jackson State University ownership of Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium.

Jackson State does not have its own on-campus stadium. The Tigers have played home games for decades at Veterans Memorial, several miles away.

The state Department of Finance and Administration owns the stadium, which is nearly 60 years old. Lawmakers have said the structure needs renovations, including repair or replacement of elevators and upgrades to the scoreboard and the press box.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who voted against the bill, said the proposal gives JSU “the headache” of maintaining the stadium. The bill also has a provision allowing JSU to approach the Legislature for appropropriations to help with stadium costs.

“You think that’s coming out of JSU’s academic funds? This is nothing but a money pit,” Bryan said.

But Sen. Terry Burton, R-Newton, vice-chairman of the Public Property Committee, said the university is aware of the issues involved in taking ownership.

“They want to take this property and call it their own,” said Burton, R-Newton.

Lawmakers voted to make a slight change to the bill to send it to negotiations between the House and Senate.

The bills are House Bills 552 and 1158.