Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cyber-Bullying: Free Speech?

America, SpeakOn This...

When does the public good of protecting individuals from harassment outweigh our constitutional right of free speech?

Everyone understands the basics of free speech: you can say what you want, with a few exceptions. You cannot yell “FIRE” in a crowded theatre or “BOMB” at a school or in an airport.

Cyber-bullying is when one person is targeted by another, for on-line or cell phone threats, harassment or humiliation. I assume things said are stronger than ‘hey four-eyes,’ or ‘skinny’ or the like, as we all were familiar with growing up. It’s a judgment call, which is exactly the problem – whose judgment?

After the suicide deaths of two 13-year-olds from this type of harassment, regulation of cyber-bullying became a civic concern, but the most common remedy - placing the responsibility on school districts - is wrong.

At least 13 states have enacted laws having school districts shoulder the burden of policing cyber-bullying, and California is the latest to tackle the problem. All have, because of the age of people involved, usually 13 to 15 year olds, saddled the schools with the responsibility of regulating this behavior. That is a problem.

School districts have no authority to regulate behavior outside of school, where cyber-bullying most often occurs. Schools also have no authority over people who are not a member of that school’s community. In at least one of the cases giving rise to this legislation the bully was an adult and would not have been covered by the legislative remedy. It’s ineffective, wrong, and in and of itself an infringement of First Amendment free speech rights.

Despite good intentions, rules are inconsistent from district to district, educators are sometimes surprisingly uneducated about the technology used by the students, and they have no resources or authority to regulate behavior off school property.

America, SpeakOn this, and tell us what you think….where does free speech end?

Submitted by ASO member Mark Emmert.

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