`Cyberstalking' law sought

Journal staff writer

ANNAPOLIS - When ``cyberstalkers" continually filled her e-mailbox with trash, Jayne A. Hitchcock changed her account.

When they began sending disparaging letters to her employers at the University of Maryland University College, forging electronic letters to her literary agent trying to cancel her contract and sending her home phone number and address over the World Wide Web with illicit invitations, Hitchcock called the police.

They couldn't help her.

Neither could the Anne Arundel County police commissioner, State Police or FBI.

No law protects Marylanders from harassment over the Internet.

``If it had happened to us over the phone, it would have been a crime. If it had happened face to face, it would have been a crime," Hitchcock, of Crofton, wrote in testimony presented yesterday to the House Judiciary Committee.

A bill under consideration by the committee would put cyberstalking - repeatedly making threatening contact over the Internet - on par with telephone harassment.

Those found guilty could face a maximum criminal charge of three years in jail or a $500 fine. The hope is the criminal charges would deter the behavior, said bill sponsor Del. Samuel I. ``Sandy" Rosenberg, D-42nd-Baltimore.

Kenneth A. Stevens of Savage testified against the bill, saying the government should not define ``obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy or indecent."

``I'm not opposed to prohibiting anonymous or repeated e-mail communications that are obviously intended to annoy or harass someone," Stevens said. But ``we have far too much Big Brother style censorship on the books already. We don't need more of it."

To Hitchcock, ``this is not a matter of free speech," she said. ``E-mail harassment needs to be made a crime before it gets out of hand."

It already has done so for Hitchcock. She managed to track her cyberstalkers to a phony New York business and has filed a $10 million civil suit.

Her lawyer has received death threats, as have reporters who have covered her story. When she and her husband changed their phone number - after the stalkers posted it on the Web - they began calling her neighbors trying to track it down.

``Who knows what they'll do next," Hitchcock said.

Through the help of her computer-literate friends, Hitchcock said she located her assailants at the Woodside Literary Agency, an unregistered business near New York City that she once contacted through e-mail.

The author had just returned to the United States from Japan and was looking for a new publisher. When she discovered that Woodside charged a fee to read her manuscript - an uncommon practice - she began notifying others when she saw the company's advertisements on the Web.

``I want to know why it has become such an obsession with them," Hitchcock said. ``I think it is because I cut into their business."