Cyberbully wins free-speech case

This week the Los Angeles Times told the story of an 8th grader who walked into her school counselor’s office in tears, saying she just couldn’t go to class. Another girl had posted a humiliating video about her in a video site and the targeted girl was sure half the school’s 8th-grade class had seen it. After much discussion among school, district, and district lawyers, the school suspended the video’s producer for a couple of days. She and her dad, a lawyer, sued the school for violating her free-speech rights, and a federal court in L.A. decided in favor of the degrading video’s producer, saying that, by suspending the girl for her video, “the school had gone too far,” the L.A. Times reports. In his 60-page opinion, US District Judge Stephen V. Wilson wrote that, “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 Tinker” (referring to the widely cited 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District). This was “a disturbing decision in a cyberbullying case,” says Nancy Willard, director of the Center for Safe & Responsible Internet Use, because the court placed too much emphasis on whether evidence could predict physical harm and substantial disruption, was dismissive of emotional harm to students, and failed to consider the video’s impact on the victim’s own “educational performance and right to feel secure at school, and thus her right to receive an education.” She argues that, “in addition to the substantial disruption test, Tinker held that a school may regulate student speech that interferes with the ‘the school’s work or [collides] with the rights of other students to be secure and be let alone’.”

I couldn’t agree more. Children who are being bullied online and offline need to be able to seek relief at school, especially when – for some children – school is the first line of defense. And schools have got to be able to intervene in cases where individual students are experiencing psychological as well as physical harm. But Willard says it much better than I can: “Research has consistently revealed that these incidents can be exceptionally emotionally traumatic and frequently are related to school failure, school avoidance, violence at school – and sometimes youth suicide. To protect the well-being of youth, school officials must have the authority to respond to these incidents and, if justified, remove offending students from school for a period of time.” If we can get to that point, then maybe the discussion about cyberbullying can be less about avoiding litigation and more about helping kids. Here’s Willard’s analysis of J.C. v. Beverly Hills Unified School District, “There is No Constitutional Right to Cyberbully.”

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