Proposed Indiana law would fine students for making fake social media profiles of teachers

INDIANA — Two Indiana legislators have introduced a bill that would allow for legal action against students and parents who harass school employees online.

The language in the bill is an almost a word-for-word copy of legislation that was introduced and passed last year in North Carolina. The proposed Indiana statute does not criminalize the harassment, unlike the North Carolina bill.

“It should look like North Carolina’s law because we used theirs as kind of the baseline,” said Rep. Todd Huston (R-Fishers), who is a co-sponsor of the bill.

The bill prohibits creating fake profiles of school employees, posting (or encouraging others to post) “private, personal, or sexual information” about school employees, posting “real or doctored” photos of school employees, tampering with data on a school employee’s computer, or continual communication with a school employee.

Violations could lead to court-ordered injunctions to cease the harassment and fines of up to $1,000. In addition, if a court finds that the school employee has been “intimidated or tormented,” the principal of the school where the school employee is employed must be notified of the decision.

Unlike the North Carolina statute, it’s not only students who would be subject to this law, but former students and parents as well.

“We just tried to broaden it out,” said Huston, “to those who have potentially the most interaction with the school employee.”

Huston said that he first learned about the North Carolina law from a story in The Washington Post and thought it addressed the strain that he feels social networking has placed on teachers.

“Clearly one of the places that this is having the most impact is on Facebook and Instagram,” said Huston. “To be an effective teacher, you have to have your credibility intact. The intent is to protect teachers from those types of situations.”

Huston said that he’s gotten positive support from other legislators already, however he still feels that there may be a few kinks to work out.

“The initial reaction has been very very favorable,” Huston said. “We’re at the very beginning of the legislative process, so we’ll see where it goes. We need to make sure that we aren’t infringing on First Amendment rights. We need to ensure that we do things the right way.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina opposed the version passed last year in North Carolina. Among the group’s concerns was the lack of a clear definition for what it means to “torment” or “intimidate” a school employee. Neither is defined in the proposed Indiana bill.

The proposed legislation isn’t supported by the state’s school board association. Frank Bush, the executive director of the Indiana School Board Association, said he thinks that the language in the bill could be problematic. He said that baseless claims could perhaps lead to defamation suits against schools.

“I think we are getting into an arena that is a behavioral issue,” said Bush. “It’s sort of like that adage ‘in the eye of the beholder.’ It’s hard for schools to handle the concept of bullying. I think it will be tough for them to handle whether someone is being ‘tormented’ or not.”

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