SPLC urges protection for student rights in Delaware 'cyberbullying' policy

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEContact: Beverly Keneagy904.626.0017 / bkeneagy@splc.org

In testimony regarding the regulation of online “bullying”speech, the Student Press Law Center urged Delaware policymakers Friday toaffirmatively protect students’ rights to discuss matters of public concern,and to develop preventive education-based solutions based on journalisticvalues and ethics.

“Online incivility is a genuine and serious societal problem– one that afflicts all age groups, not just schoolchildren – and it requires asocietal response much more sophisticated than ‘lock ‘em up and throw away thekey,’” SPLC Executive Director Frank D. LoMonte said in written testimonysubmitted Friday to Delaware Lt. Gov. Matthew Denn and Attorney General BeauBiden. “Empowering principals to muzzle student whistleblowers who wish to callpublic attention to the shortcomings of schools will be affirmativelycounterproductive to the goal of school safety.”

Denn and Biden completed a series of statewide hearings thisweek to gather public input about “cyberbullying” as part of formulating astate-level response to complaints about students’ hurtful speech on social networkingsites. LoMonte testified Wednesday at the last of the hearings at the KentCounty Courthouse in Dover. 

In his written remarks, LoMonte urged the lieutenantgovernor and attorney general to fashion a statewide policy that givesheightened protection to students’ off-campus speech, because students sofrequently are censored on campus when they attempt to question school policiesor voice an opinion about their schools’ shortcomings.

“It is one thing to say that school administrators mayexercise broad authority over speech that students intentionally direct at acaptive audience of in-school listeners during the school day. It is quiteanother thing to say that administrators have equal control over everythingthat a student says or does that might impact the school,” LoMonte said.

TheStudent Press Law Center (SPLC) is a Washington, D.C.-area non-profit whosemission is to advocate for free-press rights for high school and collegejournalists. It also provides legal information and attorney referralassistance at no charge to students and the educators who work with them. 

TheSPLC has appeared as a friend-of-the-court in support of disciplined studentspeakers in many court cases in the federal Third Circuit, which includesDelaware. Among them are Layshock v.Hermitage School District and J.S. v.Blue Mountain School District, in which the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court ofAppeals decided in 2011 that students could not be punished for speech createdoff-campus and posted on the MySpace social networking site that ridiculedtheir school principals.

On Thursday, the Delaware Senate passed and sent to the HouseSB 193 by Sen. David P. Sokola, D-Newark. The bill requires every public schooldistrict to enact a cyberbullying policy implementing the statewide policy thatthe Delaware Department of Education will release based on Benn’s and Biden’srecommendations. It also provides that Biden’s office, the Delaware Departmentof Justice, will offer legal representation to any school district that is suedbecause of its use of the state cyberbullying guidelines.

LoMonte said Delaware has the chance to avoid the mistakesmade by other states that hastily imposed new punitive responses tocyberbullying in the emotional aftermath of highly publicized student suicides.Because punishment for unkind remarks runs such a high risk of “false positive”discipline for innocent speech, LoMonte said Delaware should instead focus on apreventive approach that teaches “best practices” in digital citizenship.

“Every school should offer as a foundational part of itscore curriculum a course in the consumption (‘news literacy’) and creation ofmedia,” LoMonte said. “Making good online citizenship a routine part of theschool day is far more impactful than summoning students to an assembly to befinger-wagged about cyberbullying, which is guaranteed to shut off the‘attention’ switch.”