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After the vast publicity surrounding the suicides of cyberbullying victims, such as Phoebe Prince and Tyler Clementi, legislators began focusing on solving this problem and deterring future occurrences of these devastating tragedies. They believed the solution to be in the form of cyberbullying laws, which could make online statements subject to academic disciplinary proceedings. Several states have enacted such laws, which give school officials the authority to take action against bullying outside school grounds. The reason why authority was given specifically to school officials is that children who are being bullied tend to perform worse academically, and when cyberbullying affects students’ performance in school, the schools should have the ability to get involved.
While it is critical to take action to prevent these types of hate crimes, it is also essential to not infringe on First Amendment rights. School board members argue that there is no free speech violation because these words negatively impact other students and hurt their feelings. However, schools need to be careful when enforcing this law, as there is not clear precedent yet on the matter. Even though the Second Circuit upheld the punishment of a high school girl after she called school officials “douchebags” online, past cases, such as Tinker v. Des Moines, in which three students wore black armbands protesting the Vietnam War, have indicated that student free speech is favored. However, with the invention of the internet and websites such as Facebook and YouTube, where people are at liberty to post whatever they wish, the balance between free speech and protecting the public has become difficult to strike.
The bottom line is that finding a balance is easier said than done, but there are certainly measures to be taken that lead in the right direction. To begin, the law should be as specific as possible and provide definitions to vague words such as “bullying,” as this word can be read subjectively, making it difficult to enforce the law. Broader laws with vague definitions also have a higher likelihood of not being enforced by courts or declared unconstitutional. For instance, Connecticut’s new cyberbullying law is relatively expansive, so it is uncertain whether enforcement will be an issue for the courts. Furthermore, a more precise law provides predictability and consistency, and students should be aware of the legal boundaries of their actions ex ante.
Also, another option would be to focus more on the grass roots level and educate children at a young age about the power of the internet and the dangers that can result from freely expressing one’s feelings online. With the internet being a new technology, adults might have previously been unsure of how to properly expose their children to the internet world, but now we can begin to be more cautious of allowing children to surf the web at their leisure, unaware of their consequences.
Either way, it is an incredibly sensitive issue, and we eagerly await the Supreme Court’s decision on this controversial topic.
– Marina Visan
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