TRENTON — State lawmakers are moving to expand New Jersey’s bias intimidation law, in response to a report published last October by a state Interagency Task Force to Combat Youth Bias that found an alarming rise in incidents.

A bill endorsed by the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee would make swatting, a false public alarm that prompts a law enforcement response, and doxing, a form of digital cyber-harassment by publishing of personal information, eligible to be considered bias crimes.

It would also allow someone to seek punitive damages for bias intimidation through a civil lawsuit.

Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, said the number of bias incidents reported in New Jersey has increased from 417 in 2016 to 549 in 2017 to 569 in 2018 to 994 in 2019.

“Bias crimes are rising, not only in our own municipalities and counties and state but throughout the United States, with attacks in Pittsburgh, Jersey City, Charleston and Kenosha, with news of more swastikas showing up in schools, Confederate flags flying more regularly and nooses being placed on trees, we must make it clear that these activities have no place in New Jersey,” Schaer said.

Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, D-Hudson, said New Jersey’s current law has loopholes that need to be closed.

“Hate has no place in this world,” McKnight said.

Scott Richman, the regional director for the Anti-Defamation League’s New York/New Jersey office, said a national survey found 44% of Americans experience online hate or harassment.

“2020 and the pandemic moved much of that hate even more than it had been online,” Richman said.

“This bill will help close critical gaps in New Jersey law when it comes to combating hate on and offline, sending a clear and unequivocal message that hate simply has no home in the Garden State,” he said.

Richman, however, said he has concerns about the bill’s language addressing cyber-harassment and doxing. He said it needs to be structured in a way that it doesn’t cover lawful online identification that tracks extremists or whistleblowers or journalists doing public interest stories.

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Assemblyman Greg McGuckin, R-Ocean, voted to abstain on the bill because of the cyber-harassment language. His questions centered on whether it would be considered doxing if someone opposed to a political figure published information about where that politician’s supporters work, to pressure them.

“I agree that cyber-harassment is a major problem – as a victim of it, I believe, at times – but nevertheless I’m concerned about the breadth of this language,” McGuckin said.

Stephan Finkel, director of legislative affairs for the Office of the Attorney General, said that it would depend on the details of the case but it that it could be protected as a free-speech issue.

“You post information intended just to cause voters to object to somebody, that’s not going to be a crime,” Finkel said. “But if you do it intending to cause people to throw rocks through their window, you have a different situation.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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