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Dealing with cyber bullies

An editorial published last week in the Los Angeles Times highlights the problems schools face when trying to crack down on cyber bullying.

After a Beverley Hills eighth-grader was suspended for posting a YouTube video that called a classmate "spoiled", a "brat" and a "slut", a federal judge ruled that the school had gone too far and had effectively violated her First Amendment rights.

"To allow the school to cast this wide a net and suspend a student simply because another student takes offense to their speech, without any evidence that such speech caused a substantial disruption of the school's activities, runs afoul of the law," wrote U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson in a 60-page opinion.

In Pennsylvania, the suspension of a student for a MySpace parody of the school principal was similarly ruled illegal. Although the judge in that case found the post to be "lewd, profane and sexually inappropriate", school officials were not able to establish that it caused enough of a disruption on campus to warrant the suspension.

Both these cases appear to illustrate a trend: schools that impose discipline as a result of cyber bullying are increasingly being challenged on First Amendment grounds, even if the bullying is found to be hurtful and disruptive.

Students' rights of free expression have long been a thorny issue for the courts, dating back to the Vietnam War. Judges have mostly settled for a highly subjective view of whether the "free speech" is unduly disruptive to the school's regular activities. In many cases, like the wearing of t-shirts with slogans or participating in protest marches, schools have been on reasonably firm ground, able to make a case that the activity in question had a broad detrimental impact on other students and the curriculum.

With cyber bullying, it's different. More often than not, the activity – posting to the Internet – takes place after school hours and the harmful impact is felt by just one or two students. However hurtful to the individuals involved, the absence of a campus-wide impact has weakened school authorities' ability to take disciplinary action.

Citing the particular problems of the Internet, the judge in the Pennsylvania case stated that "the mere fact that the Internet may be accessed at school does not authorize school officials to become censors of the World Wide Web".

So where does this leave school officials? The far-sighted ones are developing a different, non-legislative approach, organizing Internet awareness classes and peer mediation groups to encourage online courtesy and respect.

But as the LA Times article points out, there have been mean girls – and boys – since the first schoolhouse was built and they are not going away anytime soon. When it comes to disciplining the cyber bullies, educators will do what they can, but the real authority, as always, remains with the parents.                 

Comment by Callie, posted 1/15/2010, 1:54 PM:

I agree that it is ultimately up to the parents, but it makes me wonder who paid for the girl's lawyer to take her school to court? If my daughter were caught cyber bulling, I would back the school suspension!
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