Miss. bill could allow schools to punish students for off-campus social media posts

MISSISSIPPI — Under a bill introduced in the Mississippi Legislature, students could face criminal charges for mocking school employees and other students online — even if the speech occurred off school grounds.

The bill, which Rep. Bobby Moak introduced on Jan. 12, would make it a misdemeanor if students post to social media to “intimidate or torment” another student or school employee. The bill would also criminalize statements — even if they are true — that are intended or are likely to provoke a third party to stalk or harass a student or school employee.

Moak, a Democrat, said he is pushing for the rules because “bullying is just not the big guy picking on the little guy in the schoolyard anymore.” The point of the legislation, he said, is to prevent people from using social media to bully their teachers or classmates “and hopefully people will think twice if this legislation passes.”

Moak said the law would also punish students or school employees who use personal devices or networks to torment others off school grounds. The bill also prohibits students from creating false profiles of teachers or other students or hacking into others’ accounts.

If behavior outside of school is is disrupting someone else in school, Moak said school officials should be able to intervene.

“You can say what you want to say, you can write what you want to write, but sometimes those things infringe on a person to the point that they can have a lawsuit against you for libel and slander,” he said. “Free speech, of course, must be respected, but there’s a line. There is an absolute line.”

Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the bill’s vague language is concerning. Speech intended to intimidate, he said, could be punishable as unprotected speech because it could be considered a true threat. But “torment” lacks a legal definition, he said, and is not defined in the bill.

“There’s no clear definition of it in the dictionary either,” he said, adding that tormenting speech “could be something that focused on extraordinarly mentally disturbing material or it could just be worry and annoyance or disturbance and commotion.”

Volokh said this bill could restrict what would otherwise be protected speech about people’s daily lives, “and so long as it’s found that it is done with the intent to torment, whatever that might mean, that would be criminally punishable.”

Volokh said he is also concerned the bill would criminalize true statements that cause disruption.

“If it were limited to putting up false profiles in a situation where it’s not clearly a joke or spreading false sexual rumors about people, then that would be a considerably narrower law,” he said. “But that’s not this law.”

More than a dozen states have laws that criminalize cyberbullying, and creating fake social media accounts is also illegal in several states. Similar to the Mississippi bill, a law in North Carolina specifically targets students’ speech, making it illegal to create a social media account in the name of a school official to “torment” or “intimidate” the employee. Unlike the North Carolina law, the Mississippi proposal applies equally to all speakers, not just students.

In July 2014, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled a law criminalizing cyberbullying violated the First Amendment because its broad language could criminalize constitutionally protected speech.

Marquan Mackey-Meggs, the first person charged for violating the law, challenged the rules in 2011 after he was punished for posting to Facebook photos of classmates with derogatory sexual comments.

Even without the bill, Mississippi students have been punished in the past for commenting online about their teachers. In 2004, St. Martin High School officials suspended a student for “defamatory language” because she called a teacher “perverted” on her blog.

In December 2014, an appeals court reversed a district court’s 2012 decision that found a Mississippi school district could suspend a student who uploaded to the Internet a profanity-filled rap song claiming two coaches inappropriately commented on female students’ bodies.

Contact SPLC staff writer Mariana Viera by email or at (202) 478-1926.