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E-mail exchange prompts law push

April 4, 2001 

HARRISBURG — Rep. John Lawless' recent spat with a Penn State student over the school's highly publicized "Sex Faire" controversy has prompted one of his colleagues to push for a law against "official intimidation."

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Babette Josephs, D-Philadelphia, would make it a crime for an elected official to "communicate to a public citizen a threat to inflict physical or financial harm to the citizen, his property or his reputation."

The law would apply to the governor, state lawmakers, the attorney general, auditor general and treasurer. Violators would be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Lawless, R-Montgomery, was involved in a testy phone and e-mail exchange with Penn State student Robert Pickrell in February after the lawmaker publicly criticized some sexually themed events staged by students.

Lawless had suggested withholding the university's state appropriations, prompting Pickrell to fire off an angry e-mail.

"This is irresponsible, and your threat towards Penn State's funding is criminal," the e-mail read in part. "You are just hurting students, you selfish bastard. I suppose the likelyhood (sic) of you acting responsibly in this situation is about as likely as your eyes moving to the same level."

Lawless, who has a facial deformity as the result of an operation to remove a brain tumor, called Pickrell to discuss the e-mail. Pickrell claimed the lawmaker threatened to ruin his reputation and prevent him from getting a job in Pennsylvania.

Lawless admits he told Pickrell, a junior majoring in education, that he would contact the state's school districts to inform them of Pickrell's admittedly inappropriate remarks. But Lawless insists he made no threats.

"She's wrong to say I threatened anyone," Lawless said of Josephs. "She's misled. She's making some accusations there that are libelous."

In a press release announcing her bill, Josephs chided Lawless for "using his power as an elected official to wreak revenge."

"A bruised ego is not a license for abusing the public," she said.

Lawless dismissed her bill as "goofy," predicting it would never survive a House vote.

"This is just a waste of taxpayers' money," he said.

Though Josephs' bill has no co-sponsors, it has gained the backing of Pickrell.

"To me, it sounds like a great idea," he said in a phone interview Tuesday. "For someone like me, who felt so powerless in that situation, I would support that bill."

By Michael Race,, © 2001 Centre Daily Times

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