High school student in New Jersey faces bullying charges for politically-charged anti-Israel tweets

NEW JERSEY — A New Jersey high school student is being investigated by her school district for possibly violating the state’s anti-bullying law for a series of anti-Israel tweets.

Bethany Koval, a 16-year-old student at Fair Lawn High School, has found herself in a storm of controversy surrounding whether she should be punished for bullying another student who did not agree with her pro-Palestine tweets. Koval’s tweets comparing the actions of Israel towards Palestinians to apartheid have garnered a following of over 7,000 users. Koval, who has since made her Twitter account private, could not be reached for comment.

Koval faces possible disciplinary action after another student complained to administrators about tweets Koval had posted off-campus during the December holiday break. Koval had expressed excitement on Twitter that that student, who has pro-Israel views, had stopped following her account, according to various news media accounts. She referred to the user in a tweet as “that pro-Israel girl from my school,” and divulged the user’s name privately to one of her followers via direct messaging.

Her politically driven tweets refer to Israel as a “terrorist force” and described its policies toward Palestinians as “apartheid,” a reference to the now-outlawed regime of racial segregation in South Africa.

Koval was summoned to an administrator’s office on Jan. 7 for questioning about the issue. Koval live-tweeted and recorded the entire exchange to later post to Twitter, according to the New York Times.

The administrator — identified in the recording as an assistant principal — warned Koval that she could be disciplined for a tweet that contained numerous expletives toward Israel and her references to the pro-Israel student.

The administrator informed her that this tweet could constitute bullying in “the eyes of the state.” James Marcella, the principal of Fair Lawn High School, declined to comment on the issue.

New Jersey lawmakers implemented one of the strictest anti-bullying laws in the country after 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi committed suicide by jumping from the George Washington Bridge on Sep. 22, 2010, after his roommate clandestinely recorded and broadcast Clementi having a sexual encounter in their shared dorm room.

On Jan. 6, 2011, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed into law the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which focuses on combating harassment, intimidation and bullying in public schools throughout the state. The new bill’s definition of bullying includes any act that infringes on a student’s rights at school, and requires every public school to report all cases of bullying or teasing to the state.

The law orders administrators to begin an investigation within one school day of any reported bullying, and threatens that educators who fail to follow these practices could lose their licenses.

Koval could face suspension, or even expulsion, if charged with bullying under the law. She retained the services of New York criminal defense attorney Stanley Cohen, who told The New York Times he hoped school officials would realize the situation is “no big deal.”

Cohen, known for representing controversial clients, such as the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, was incarcerated on Jan. 6 for impeding the Internal Revenue Service and could not be reached for comment.

Alexander Shalom, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said though the state’s anti-bullying law is the toughest in the nation, there are constitutional limits to how strict it can be.

He said the school does not have a legitimate case against Koval, especially because the expletives against Israel in her tweet are core protected political speech.

“Take the politics out of [Koval’s] description of the classmate and replace it with ‘that girl from my Spanish class,’” Shalom said. “That is certainly not bullying.”

Koval’s supporters have cried out for justice, rallying around the Twitter hashtag #FreeBenny. The school received a wealth of calls and emails in defense of Koval — including one from the National Coalition Against Censorship.

In response, Fair Lawn Public Schools Superintendent Bruce Watson issued a statement on Jan. 8 stressing that district officials never sought to “censor or reprimand any pupils for their online speech.”

Watson also noted that administrators are obligated by the state law against bullying to investigate any allegation to determine whether harassment, intimidation or bullying took place.

Still, Shalom said the mere threat of discipline for unpopular political speech has the impermissible effect of quashing speech.

“There is clearly a political aspect to this and she has a very unpopular political opinion,” Shalom said. “That is a core part of First Amendment protections.”

Though the speech took place off-campus, the courts have been fractured on whether school officials have the authority to regulate it — especially in social media.

The U.S. Supreme Court has now been asked to weigh in on the issue of students’ off-campus speech. Attorneys for Taylor Bell, a student suspended from a Mississippi high school in January 2011 for posting a homemade rap video to Facebook and YouTube, filed a petition for certiorari with the highest court. The case will ask the justices to determine whether existing standards can be applied to off-campus online speech.

The landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District held that school officials may not justify the suppression of student speech unless the speech in question would “materially and substantially interfere” with the operation of the school. With the rise of social media, the question of whether this applies to off-campus online speech has become more prevalent.

If the Tinker standard is applied to off-campus online speech, schools could then punish a student for expressing a political belief on a blog or writing explicit commentary in a tweet, if any school official thinks it may cause a disruption.

“When the authority figure of the school calls someone in to scrutinize their political speech, there is an inherently coercive and chilling nature in that,” Shalom said. “Students will fear these unfounded consequences.”

SPLC staff writer Kaitlin DeWulf can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6317.

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