Back in session, state lawmakers introduce new legislation on cyberbullying

With the start of a new legislative session in many statehouses, cyberbullying has reappeared on the radar this month.

Legislators in four states have all proposed bills that either amend the definition of “bullying” or require school boards to implement policy regarding cyberbullying and other forms of harassment.

States with pending legislation on issues of bullying and cyberbullying include:

  • Alaska: A proposal to amend the state’s bullying law to include electronic as well as in-person communications.
  • New Mexico: Another proposal to include cyberbullying as a form of bullying, as well as a requirement for school boards to implement a “cyberbullying prevention policy” by August 2013.
  • New York: A proposal to revise the state’s newly enacted 2012 cyberbullying law to define cyberbullying as “a repeated course of communication, or repeatedly causing a communication to be sent, by mechanical or electronic means, posting statements on the internet or through a computer network with no legitimate communication purpose which causes alarm or serious annoyance, or is likely to cause alarm or serious annoyance.”
  • Virginia: Clarifies the term “bullying” and requires districts to enact anti-bullying policies not just involving student-on-student conduct but also bullying of school employees by other employees.

It is difficult to characterize cyberbullying legislation as a free speech issue because of the understandable public sympathy over bullying’s influence on young people. However, legislators should keep in mind that vague and sometimes poorly written policy could hurt students more than help them, said SPLC attorney Adam Goldstein.

Goldstein said excessive “zero tolerance” policies allow school administrations to punish constitutionally protected speech. He criticized the several of the proposed bills, excluding Virginia’s, explaining that the use of vague wording such as “legitimate” makes them questionably constitutional.

“You could use these definitions to prosecute Thomas Paine,” Goldstein said. “The core revelation of the Revolutionary War was to say ‘we hate the King.'”

In contrast, the language in Virginia’s proposed bill calls for a comprehensive response to bullying from an educational perspective that doesn’t infringe upon students’ free expression rights, he said.

The start of a new legislative session and the introduction of these sorts of bills are a good reminder to student journalists of the need to keep an eye on proposed legislation. Websites like Scout, a Sunlight Foundation project, allow you to set up alerts for certain terms so that you know when new legislation is introduced. Terms you might want to search for regularly? “College,” “university,” “tuition,” “public records,” “cyberbullying,” “bullying” and “Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.”