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Kentucky approves bill to make 'doxing' illegal after Covington student's online backlash

"My family and I are living in a nightmare," the teenager's father said.
Image: Ted Sandmann
Ted Sandmann, left, and his attorney Todd McMurtry speak with reporters on March 6, 2019, in Frankfort, Kentucky.Adam Beam / AP

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Weeks after a Kentucky high school student says he was wrongly vilified for his interaction with a Native American protester, state lawmakers on Wednesday advanced a bill that would make it a crime to publish personal information of a child online with the intent to harass, abuse or frighten.

A Kentucky state Senate committee approved a bill to make "doxing" anyone under 18 a crime. If the bill becomes law, it would make it a misdemeanor to publish minors' personal information — such as a home address or the school they attend — to threaten them.

The proposal comes as social media companies are struggling to combat harmful content posted on their digital platforms that have real-world consequences.

"There are no brakes on Twitter," said Todd McMurtry, an attorney for 16-year-old Nick Sandmann, whose interaction with Native American protester Nathan Phillips went viral in January. "Twitter itself barely has the capacity to monitor its own activity. To put some weight back on the citizens so that they can help fight back when they are doxed would be great to make up for the fact that Twitter barely does anything."

But free speech advocates worry the proposal goes too far. Three Democrats voted against the bill, citing free speech concerns. Rebecca Ballard DiLoreto, a lobbyist for the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the bill was too broad and would have unintended consequences. She noted the state already has laws to prosecute "terroristic threatening" and other harassing behavior.

"When I first read (the bill), what I thought about was when I visited Soviet Russia and when I visited China and how careful I was when I ever got on the internet in those countries," DiLoreto said. "What you pass matters, and the language you use should matter. And you should want to pass laws that are constitutional and specific."

Twitter spokeswoman Katie Rosborough said publishing or posting private someone's private information without their consent violates the company's rules, adding "we're working to make it easier for users to report this type of behavior."

The bill still has to pass the state Senate and the House of Representatives and it's unclear if it has the necessary support. After Wednesday, lawmakers will have just five legislative days left to pass bills before they adjourn for the year.

The bill is responding to an incident in January when Sandmann, a student at Covington Catholic High School in northern Kentucky, was the target of countless social media comments after his interaction with Phillips near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington was posted online.

The first videos to emerge showed a smiling Sandmann wearing a red "Make America Great Again" hat standing very close to Phillips, who was beating a drum. At first, many online commenters declared Sandmann was harassing Phillips and used it to comment on the state of political discourse in this country. But interpretations later shifted as witnesses released more cellphone footage and Sandmann and others said it was Phillips who confronted them while they were waiting for a bus.

Various videos of the incident were viewed millions of times online, and soon photos of Sandmann, along with information about what school he attended, was circulating online. Wednesday, Sandmann's father, Ted, told lawmakers his son was the "victim of the most sensational twitter attack on a minor child in the history of the internet."

"My family and I are living in a nightmare," Ted Sandmann told reporters following his testimony. "To think that people are taking the freedom of speech and turning it into hate speech is not right."

As an example, Sandmann pointed to a tweet by former CNN host Reza Aslan, who tweeted a photo of Sandmann with the comment: "Honest question. Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid's?"

The Sandmann family has already sued The Washington Post for $250 million, accusing the newspaper of falsely labeling Nick Sandman as a racist. Sandmann's attorneys are threatening legal action against several other media outlets, including The Associated Press. Sandmann told lawmakers on Wednesday the family is still far away from "restoring my son's reputation."

"My son is going to go through the rest of his life with a target on his back," Ted Sandmann said. "He's always going to be looking over his shoulder. Because what harm has been done can't be erased."