Indiana legislature reconsiders cyberbullying bill

INDIANA — Sitting in an Indiana House committee is a revised and less stringent version of an “anti-cyberbullying” bill that First Amendment advocates helped kill last year.

House Bill 1015, if passed, would allow schools to punish students for “engaging in a delinquent, criminal, or tortious act” that occurs on or off school grounds.

This bill seems familiar because, well, Indiana has seen it before. Last year, a bill that would have allowed schools to suspend or expel students for speech, even if it was said off-campus or during school breaks, passed the state’s House but died in a Senate committee after testimony by First Amendment advocates.

The legislation, which Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte dubbed the “Put a Principal in Your Bedroom” bill, was was put on hold last year while lawmakers looked into the issue.

Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, introduced last year’s legislation and this year’s revised bill. Koch could not be reached for comment despite multiple attempts.

Diana Hadley, director of the Indiana High School Press Association, said she felt that last year’s version of the bill could have easily been used to punish “unpopular” speech, not simply illegal speech, putting student journalists at risk.

“It was called a cyberbullying bill, but the truth is, it was a concern to us,” Hadley said. The version introduced this year is much less concerning, she said.

“I think it is an improvement,” she said. “But I’m not sure it will protect every case.”

Part of the bill describes “delinquent, criminal, or tortious” acts. Hadley said she worries that “delinquent” could be misconstrued when making judgments. She said that she believes that there is a possibility that the word “delinquent” could provide a challenge toward student expression.

While Indiana Code sec. 31-37-1-2 defines a delinquent act as “an act that would be an offense if committed by an adult,” the bill does not directly reference this definition and it is not clear that the authors intended that reading.

LoMonte agreed with Hadley’s concerns.

“Delinquent doesn’t have any well-defined legal meaning,” said LoMonte. “It just means bad.”

LoMonte said there’s also the potential that students could be punished for an “interference with school purposes or an educational function.” He said that that is not defined and could be used to punish various types of legally protected student speech.

“I’d be worried that just fighting in opposition to a school policy would be ‘interference with school purposes,’” he said.

Hadley said she feels bad for school administrators.

“I feel sorry for school administrators that see this and realize that they would be on duty 24/7.”

By Kaitlin Tipsword, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tipsword by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.