N.Y. legislature passes cyberbullying bill

NEW YORK — Acyberbullying bill that could give schools new authority over students’off-campus Internet posts is on its way to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The bill, introduced Friday and passed by the state’s Senate and Assembly onMonday, extends New York’s anti-bullying law to cover electronic communication.It grants schools authority over speech that occurs off-campus if it creates ahostile environment, a risk of a substantial disruption at school and “itis foreseeable that the conduct, threats, intimidation or abuse might reachschool property.”

The legislature recognizes much of the cyberbullying occursoff-campus, according to the bill, but the activity “nonetheless affects theschool environment and disrupts the educational process, impeding the abilityof students to learn and too often causing devastating effects on students’health and well-being.”

Under the bill, a principal, superintendent or the designeeof either would be charged with receiving reports of cyberbullying. Schoolemployees who witness an incident or receive a report of an incident mustnotify the principal, superintendent or designee no later than one school dayafter first learning of it.

That person would then be responsible for overseeing athorough investigation, and if the investigation reveals any verifiedharassment, bullying or discrimination, the school would be required to “takeprompt actions reasonably calculated” to end the harassment.

“This legislation provides school districts with the toolsthey need to address bullying and cyberbullying to help ensure that the schoolenvironment is safe for all students,” said Sen. Steve Saland, one of thebill’s sponsors, in a news release. 

The bill also requires schools to instruct students on“safe, responsible use of the Internet and electronic communications.”

Compared to other states’ cyberbullying laws, New York’s is“slightly less idiotic,” said Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the StudentPress Law Center.

“The language of New York’s bill — on its face — goes rightup to the line of what you can restrict under current law,” Goldstein said.

That line, Goldstein said, is restricting or punishingoff-campus speech that is directed at the school or can be calculated to causean effect on school grounds and that disrupts the learning environment.

He said the most glaring problem in the bill is a definitionof bullying that includes the creation of a hostile environment by conduct that“reasonably causes or would reasonably be expected to cause physical injury oremotional harm to a student.”

That provision limits speech based on what could emotionallyharm a 12-year-old, Goldstein said.

“If causing emotional harm to a student is cyberbullying,then every set of parents in New York has cyberbullied their kid,” he said.

Goldstein said the law could lead to a “wave ofunconstitutional discipline” if administrators apply the bill too broadly toonline student speech.

“[It’s] handing a sword to a group of people who have atrack record of cutting themselves with knives,” he said.

In a memo supporting the legislation, Gov. Cuomo saidcyberbullying is “a new and especially insidious form of bullying.”

He said this legislation is an essential step in the state’songoing effort to improve education.

“Every child is entitled to feel safe in the classroom,”Cuomo wrote in the memo. “Failure to respond immediately and appropriatelynegatively impacts education and fuels violence.”

By Taylor Moak, SPLC staff writer