In the ebbing days of their legislative session, Louisiana legislators approved a sweeping ban on “cyberbullying” that raises significant constitutional questions because it extends to such behavior as “making faces,” “spreading untrue rumors” and “shunning.”
Senate Bill 764 by Sen. Rick Ward III, D-Port Allen, passed the Senate Friday by a vote of 37-0 after earlier passing the House. It now goes to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is expected to sign it.
The bill requires schools to impose discipline for any verified incidents of bullying, which is broadly defined to include conduct that has the effect of “substantially interfering with a student’s performance in school,” even if there was no intent to cause that effect or even if the effect could not reasonably have been anticipated. The penalties apply equally no matter where the behavior occurs, even off-campus on students’ personal time — a jurisdictional issue that courts continue to struggle with.
“Bullying” would include not just threats or physical violence, but name-calling, taunting, “malicious teasing” and other non-threatening behavior, if the acts are “severe” or “pervasive.”
The bill also prevents schools from accepting reports of bullying from students in confidence. If a victim wishes to speak with school employees about bullying, the victim’s parents must first be invited to be present. Teachers and counselors who learn of bullying must tell their administrators, even if the student making the report asks that it be kept confidential. And if the school receives a report of bullying, it must interview everyone involved — including the bully and his parents — and complete a written report within 10 days.
Under the bill, good-faith reports of bullying cannot be grounds for punishment or retaliation — but students can be punished for making knowingly false reports.
A House alternative proposal made bullying punishable if done by school employees as well as by students. The Senate declined to take up the House bill, however, and its version — the one sent to Jindal’s desk — contains no penalties for bullying by teachers or administrators.
The failed House bill also focused on protecting students who were targeted because of race, religion or other personal characteristics. Critics contended that the measure might single out religious-based criticism of homosexuality as “bullying,” and the Senate version expressly says that all acts of bullying are equally punishable “without regard to the subject matter or the motivating animus of the bullying.”