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Protect bullied adults in West Virginia

Had Denise Fernatt been a juvenile, police and prosecutors might have been able to do something about the people who allegedly harassed her until she jumped off the New River Gorge Bridge on Aug. 5, 2017. But bullying laws that safeguard West Virginia children do not apply to adults.

Two years after his wife committed suicide, Roy Fernatt, of Kanawha County, filed a lawsuit against six people and a motorcycle club he contends meant to bully her to the point that she would take her own life. That was done through online harassment and posting semi-nude pictures of the late Mrs. Fernatt in public places.

Kanawha County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Maryclaire Akers told the Charleston Gazette-Mail she had reviewed the case — but decided that while what happened to Mrs. Fernatt was “horrible,” state law provided no grounds on which to prosecute the harassers. Officers at a local police department also looked for ways to file charges, but in vain.

Hearing of the case, state Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, decided something had to be done. She told the Gazette-Mail she wants to amend the state Computer Crime and Abuse Act — which covers juveniles — to include adult behavior.

“When you’re talking about adults, it’s going to be more controversial and a little more difficult,” Rucker said of her proposal.

She is probably correct. Many people view bullying as a problem that affects children, not adults. Theoretically, men and women are better able to cope with harassment and to do something about it.

But as Fernatt’s lawsuit pointed out, his late wife was vulnerable. She suffered from depression and had attempted to commit suicide previously.

It will not be easy for Rucker and other lawmakers to write a statute that will pass constitutional muster. The First Amendment will be an obstacle, protecting as it does virtually all types of expression.

But the U.S. Supreme Court has held that there can be exceptions.

One of them is “crying fire in a crowded theater” behavior — that is, speech meant to incite panic and/or violence. If Fernatt is correct, that is precisely what his late wife’s tormenters intended to do.

Good for Rucker. We hope she and others in the Legislature do not allow the difficulty of crafting constitutional legislation deter them.

Those who would bully others, of whatever age, into killing themselves should face consequences for their actions.

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