The justice system increasingly is being asked to intercede in unpleasant social interactions involving young people that, once upon a time, used to get settled through a stern lecture and a parental conference.In Pennsylvania, police charged a 15-year-old with the crime of "disorderly conduct" for secretly recording students bullying him during school, a case that prosecutors recently withdrew after a public outcry.And in Iowa, an Allamakee County high school student was hauled into juvenile court and adjudicated "delinquent," the equivalent to a conviction in adult criminal court, for insulting remarks ("you fat, skanky bitch") that she yelled at a rival student while exiting the school bus.In a victory for judicial restraint, the Iowa student's case was overturned April 16 by the Iowa Court of Appeals, which reached the common-sense decision that not every upsetting remark can be criminalized as "harassment."In its ruling, the Court of Appeals found that Iowa's criminal harassment statute -- which outlaws speech that is intended, without legitimate purpose, to "threaten, intimidate or alarm" -- cannot be violated by mere insults.
Can derogatory remarks about a teacher be both constitutionally protected speech and also punishable as harassment?A Wisconsin appeals court appears to believe so.The Wisconsin Supreme Court is being asked to take up the case of "Kaleb K.," a 15-year-old student from Stevens Point, Wisc., who was arrested after posting a homemade rap on YouTube filled with profane, degrading language about his Spanish teacher.In September 2012, a juvenile-court judge declared Kaleb delinquent on the grounds of violating state criminal statutes against disorderly conduct and unlawful use of a computer communications system.In a ruling last November, the state Court of Appeals threw out the disorderly conduct charge, finding that Kaleb's lyrics, though distasteful, were not threatening, obscene or otherwise outside the boundaries of the First Amendment.But the court then went on to uphold the conviction under the state's computer-harassment law, which makes it a misdemeanor if a speaker "sends a message to [a] person on an electronic mail or other computerized communication system" that contains lewd or profane language "with the intent to harass, annoy, or offend."It's possible to harass someone even with a constitutionally protected message if the speech is delivered in an especially harassing manner.
Citing concerns about cyberbullying, schools have begun monitoring students’ online activity. Opponents say the tracking is unnecessarily invasive and could violate students’ First Amendment rights.
The Wisconsin Senate’s Committee on Education voted unanimously last week to move forward on legislation that would add cyberbullying and electronic harassment to the state’s antibullying laws, as well as require school district officials to report certain bullying incidents to law enforcement regardless of where the incident took place.
Whether public schools can regulate students' off-campus speech just as if the speech occurred on campus is a recurring legal issue that will arise with increasing frequency now that state legislatures are putting schools into the business of policing online bullying.The Ninth Circuit U.S.
Caption: Kerry Kennedy addresses the crowd gathered for the RFK Center's launch of Project SEATBELT.
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.
Two Indiana legislators have introduced a bill that would allow for legal action against students and parents who harass school employees online.
With the start of a new legislative session in many statehouses, cyberbullying has reappeared on the radar this month.Legislators in four states have all proposed bills that either amend the definition of "bullying" or require school boards to implement policy regarding cyberbullying and other forms of harassment.States with pending legislation on issues of bullying and cyberbullying include:
- Alaska: A proposal to amend the state's bullying law to include electronic as well as in-person communications.
- New Mexico: Another proposal to include cyberbullying as a form of bullying, as well as a requirement for school boards to implement a "cyberbullying prevention policy" by August 2013.
- New York: A proposal to revise the state's newly enacted 2012 cyberbullying law to define cyberbullying as "a repeated course of communication, or repeatedly causing a communication to be sent, by mechanical or electronic means, posting statements on the internet or through a computer network with no legitimate communication purpose which causes alarm or serious annoyance, or is likely to cause alarm or serious annoyance."
- Virginia: Clarifies the term "bullying" and requires districts to enact anti-bullying policies not just involving student-on-student conduct but also bullying of school employees by other employees.
A Wisconsin county has approved a new ordinance that makes it a criminal offense to send electronic messages that annoy, offend or ridicule, following the adoption of similar laws in the county's municipalities.