More States Take Up Cyber-Bullying Laws

Published March 1, 2009

A few high-profile cyber-bullying cases—usually involving schoolchildren—have prompted many states to consider legislation against the practice. Civil liberties watchdogs say such laws raise concerns about freedom of speech and extending the reach of government beyond the schoolhouse doors.

The most recent case of cyber-bullying that made headlines across the country resulted in a misdemeanor conviction against 49-year-old Lori Drew. The Missouri mother posed as a teenage boy online and wooed 13-year-old Megan Meier.

When Drew, posing as “Josh,” broke up with Meier—which Drew planned to do all along to cause her emotional pain—the girl committed suicide. A jury in November convicted Drew of “unauthorized access to a computer.”

Pushing for Laws

Thirteen states have passed laws against such cyber-bullying, and others are considering similar legislation. Beginning this year in California, public schools may suspend or expel students who commit cyber-bullying, under one such law.

“The current laws are basically saying to school administrators that the state legislature wants them to address cyber-bullying,” said Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.

“Most states have laws that say to school administrators that they want schools to address bullying. In some states cyber-bullying is being added. In other states, new statutes are being created that include both,” Willard said.

Constitutional Standards

Willard says it’s important for state legislators to make sure their efforts don’t run afoul of the right to free speech, especially since the majority of cyber-bullying occurs off campus.

“It is helpful to understand the underlying philosophies of the free speech amendment,” Willard said. “There were two. One philosophy was grounded in English Common Law, that government could respond to speech to protect the common good—for example, obscenity laws. The other is the natural rights approach—that government could respond to the speech of one to protect the right of others, [as in hate-crime] laws.

“When students are in school, school officials can respond to speech that is lewd, rude, crude, offensive, and not in accord with the educational mission of the school, as well as speech that has or could cause a substantial disruption at school or interference with the rights of other students,” Willard said.

Reaching Beyond Schools

Willard notes, however, court precedent tends to stop school administrators from legally policing off–campus speech.

“School officials do not have the authority to respond to lewd, rude, or crude speech [outside of school]—but they retain the authority to respond if the impact of the speech is, or could be, at school and could cause a substantial disruption or interference with students,” Willard said.

“There have been some recent cases involving online student speech that have not followed this approach—but I really do think that once we have some more cases decided at the appellate level, this is the standard that will ultimately be applied,” Willard noted.

Going to Extremes

Willard further explained, “There needs to be a school nexus—an impact at school or particular reasons to predict an impact at school, that will be substantial and will disrupt the delivery of instruction or interfere with the rights of students to be safe and secure. Student free speech rights cannot trump this.”

Joan Duffell, executive director of the child-advocacy group Committee for Children, said it’s up to parents to help children deal with cyber-bullying just as they do with real-world bullying.

“We need to give children tools to help them make their cyber-interactions healthy and constructive, just as we give them tools to be kind and caring in their ‘live’ interactions with others,” Duffell said.

‘Getting Much Worse’

Bill Bond, a former principal who tours the country speaking about school violence for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said cyber-bullying is getting worse. He also said it can be even more hurtful than what less-technical generations endured.

“Cyber-bullying is getting much worse, and it’s affecting a lot of kids,” Bond said. “Cyber-bullying can be even more destructive than face-to-face bullying because you get a sense that the whole world is being exposed to what is being said to you.”

Tabassum Rahmani ([email protected]) writes from Dublin, California.