- Associated Press - Monday, April 6, 2015

DENVER (AP) - Colorado lawmakers cleared the way for a bill to make cyberbullying a crime on Monday, settling a dispute over religious speech.

The tentative agreement between three Democrats and three Republicans would say that online harassers wouldn’t be guilty of a crime if their remarks are based on religion, philosophy or personal belief. But the exemption would apply only if those remarks are already protected by the First Amendment.

Lawmakers from both parties have supported the bill to tackle online bullying, but conservatives wanted to make sure the attempt didn’t trample speech rights.

The bill had Democratic sponsors, but the Republican Senate amended the cyberbullying definition to exempt religious or philosophical opinions.

That version had Democrats saying the exemption amounted to a blank check for threatening others’ lives on religious grounds.

“That really guts the bill,” said Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Denver, arguing the amendment would allow someone to avoid charges for some kinds of speech that aren’t protected now, such as telling a Muslim that he should die.

“At the same time we’re adding the method of harassment, we’re saying the content of the harassment no longer includes any religious, political or philosophical harassment,” Kagan said.

Republicans on the negotiating panel agreed to tweak that change so that only “constitutionally protected” speech on such grounds would be protected. In other words, it could still be harassment to threaten someone, even if the threat has a religious basis.

“Ultimately it’s going to come down to a judge” whether a threat amounts to speech protected by the First Amendment, said Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango.

The agreement now must be approved by the full House and Senate before heading to the governor’s desk.

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Online:

House Bill 1072: http://bit.ly/1JgHKHS

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