Cyberbullying: The Right of Free Speech vs. the Rights of Victims

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A decade ago, not many imagined that someday forensic nursing programs and special task forces would be studying what kids posted on the likes of Facebook. But now that cyberbullying is become a pressing concern, that is the case. And finding the right response to cyberbullying is not easy.

Cyberbullying is New

Bullying has long been a problem in American middle and high schools. Students who turn against their peers can make school life miserable for their victims. Before the spread of the Internet and mobile technology, these acts were largely limited to hallways, bathrooms, and the back of the school bus. No more. A new age of “cyberbulling” makes it possible for students to harass each other behind a mask of virtual anonymity.

Cyberbullying can be as simple as mean-spirited text messages or emails sent directly to the victim, though in many cases, the damage can be much more wide-reaching. Inflammatory messaging strings, negative social networking campaigns, and viral video posts are among the many ways that today’s bullies can reach deep into their victims’ worlds, making the abuse all but inescapable.

In part because of its closeted online nature, cyberbullying can be difficult for outsiders to detect. It is not always obvious to a teacher that a student is looking dejected because her classmates are rampantly texting about her. Similarly, parents may not realize that a veritable Facebook campaign has been launched against their teenage son. Even when victims discuss these troubles with adults, it may be hard for the adults to understand. Many have seldom seen Facebook or know it only for its IPO.

School and government response to cyberbullying started out relatively slowly, in part because of the “hidden” nature of most offenses. Usually, it was not until the potential for serious injury was realized that solutions started cropping up, everywhere from school education campaigns to non-profit groups. On the legal side, advocates are searching for ways of legislating against cyberbullying, often by attaching criminal penalties.

Heartbreaking Stories

One of the first stories to shine the spotlight on cyberbullying was the 2003 tragedy of Ryan Halligan. Halligan, a Vermont 13-year-old, committed suicide after allegedly being bombarded with malicious instant messages from his classmates. These messages spread amongst his peers, and contributed to almost daily harassment. Halligan’s father told CBS News “it was like a feeding frenzy. Kids who normally didn't bully got in on the fun, both at school and online,” he said.

Even more attention was garnered after the 2010 death of Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts teenager who hanged herself after months of malicious postings on a social network page.  Prince’s family pressed charges against the alleged perpetrators.

In many instances, the aspects of cyberbullying that are most egregious—the rapid dissemination of information, the carefully crafted fake Facebook pages, the e-mail blasts—happen outside of school hours. “Cyberbullying can happen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and reach a kid even when he or she is alone. It can happen any time of the day or night,” says the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Most of the time, schools can only control what is said or what happens during school hours, or on school computers.

A California high school learned this the hard way when, in early 2012, administrators suspended three students because of inflammatory comments made on the Tumblr miniblog website. The principal accused the students of cyberbullying, but the American Civil Liberties Union was quick to intervene with accusations that the suspensions violated students’ free speech rights. The Tumblr postings did not meet California’s narrow statutory definition of “cyberbullying,” the ACLU alleged.

“We absolutely recognize and value our students’ right to free speech. We also recognize that we need to educate them about responsible speech,” Gentle Blythe, a spokeswoman for the school, told the Huffington Post’s California Watch.  All three students were reinstated once it became clear that the comments were not within the cyberbullying law’s purview.

What Can Be Done

Being aware of the confines of state cyberbullying laws is of course important for school administrators, but teachers and classroom aides can often make strides to prevent cyberbullying before it happens, no matter how offenses are officially defined.

“It is important for everyone in the community to work together to send a unified message against bullying,” the DHHS says. “Launch an awareness campaign to make the objectives known to the school, parents, and community members. Establish a school safety committee or task force to plan, implement, and evaluate your school's bullying prevention program.” 

There may not be an easy solution to stop cyberbullying, particularly not as technology continues to advance and new methods of harassment evolve. Being aware of the problem and knowing how to reach out to potential victims can go a long way to solving the crisis, however.

--Carmen Rivera

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