Bills to curb cyber-bullying raise free-speech concerns

Legislators in several states this year have proposed or reintroduced billsto protect students from cyber-bullying, giving school administrators a role incombating what they see as a new wave of electronic harassment. While some feelthis will protect students, First Amendment advocates worry the policies willinfringe on students’ rights.

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SPLC View: This is one of those issues where it is sometimes toughbeing a free-speech advocate. After all, bullying can be a serious problem whoseimpact on the victim is substantial and far-reaching. The problem is thatanti-bullying laws, reminiscent of the flurry of campus speech code activity inthe 1990s, too often attempt to fix a broken ankle using a chainsaw. While thegeneral goals of such legislation are admirable, they frequently outlaw”bullying” by punishing lots of speech that, while unpleasant, doesn’t neatlyfit into the bullying category; one proposed bill in Missouri, for instance,purports to outlaw the use of “coarse language” to a minor, and to criminalizecommunicating on-line anonymously. Moreover, most of the laws would also allowschool officials to punish students for otherwise private speech that takesplace entirely off-campus, territory that has traditionally been regulated byparents and, in extreme cases, local law enforcement officials and publiccourts. Lawmakers need to tread carefully.