Online Citizenship

Hysteria over cruelty on social media is fueling panicky legislation exposing young people to “zero tolerance” suspensions, expulsions and prosecutions for harmless online speech. North Carolina has even made mocking a school official online punishable by a year in jail – but only if you’re a student. Cyberbullying is awful and its consequences can be heartbreaking, but hasty “lock-‘em-up” responses risk turning student editorial commentators into criminals. Schools are already abusing newfound “anti-bullying” authority to suppress lawful criticism of school policies and personnel.

What we believe

The first generation of societal responses to online cruelty has ranged from ineffective to affirmatively destructive. Lecturing teens that “the Internet is forever” strains credibility – and it reinforces the worst fears of bullying victims that online slurs will lastingly define them. All young people need a foundational course in the law and ethics of online publishing at the middle-school level as part of a larger course in the effective consumption and creation of digital media. Educating all kids in the values and ethics of journalism – verify your facts, correct your mistakes, sign your real name and accept responsibility for your work, consider the impact of what you write on others – is the best hope of elevating the level of online discourse.

What we’re doing about it

  • We’re pushing back, in legislatures and in the courts, against the worst excesses by lawmakers and school disciplinarians. We helped overturn an unconstitutional New York statute making it a crime to “annoy” or “humiliate” another person online.
  • Our online teaching guides help young people appreciate the power of the written word and recognize when they’re crossing legal and ethical lines.
  • We’re working with partners on developing an educationally responsible response to online incivility that starts with journalistic ethics and values, not suspensions and arrests, which must be reserved for only the most extreme and egregious cases.

How you can help

  • Get informed about the realities of “cyberbullying” and about student First Amendment rights, and help promote public awareness about the myths and “junk science” that lead to misguided public policy.
  • “Audit” the online-speech policies in your state, district or campus to identify those penalizing constitutionally protected speech, and speak out for balanced, educationally based alternatives.
  • Let SPLC know about overreaching by schools and colleges that miscategorize criticism of government officials as “bullying.”