Cyberbullying: Out of the Playground and Onto the Internet

Posted April 5, 2012 in Internet Law by

  • A celebrity sends a tweet to his hundreds of thousands of followers that seems to encourage vigilante justice.
  • An anonymous group creates a Facebook page that, under the guise of “freedom of speech,” encourages users to post unflattering comments about students and teachers at a local high school.
  • A teenager gets in a fight with friends who, in turn, write more than 100 mean-spirited tweets about her.

What do they all have in common? Each is a recent example of cyberbullying.

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing, filmmaker Spike Lee posted the alleged address of shooter George Zimmerman on Twitter. The problem? It wasn’t actually Zimmerman’s home address, but that of an older, unrelated couple. The damage was done before Lee realized his mistake. His tweet was reposted many times, often with threats of violence.

Then there’s the fake Facebook page filled with derogatory comments about students and staff at an Arizona high school. After school administrators complained, Facebook took the page down, but anonymous users quickly created a new one.

“If a few mean jokes from the cool kids in your school make you want to kill yourself…Just [expletive] kill yourself,” reads the caption of one picture posted to the page. Beneath the photo, a visitor comments, “If ya’ll find this page or pic offensive go jump off a bridge abd [sic] if u live do it again.”

Millennium High School administrators say they can’t punish the perpetrators because they don’t know who’s responsible for the page, nor do they know if school property was used to post the information.

 

What is Cyberbullying?

J. Freedley Hunsicker, Jr.

So what is cyberbullying? Imagine cruel schoolyard taunts and teasing, and move it to the Internet. While it may not involve physical violence, it can be just as hurtful and harmful.

Take, for example, the Rutgers’ University webcam case. Freshman Dharun Ravi was

found guilty of intimidation and privacy invasion after setting up a webcam to broadcast his gay roommate’s sexual encounter and publicizing it on Twitter. His roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide several days after the incident.

Clementi isn’t the first teen who’s committed suicide after being cyberbullied. The issue gained national attention in 2006, when Missouri teen Megan Meier killed herself after receiving cruel online messages from a boy named Josh who befriended her on the social networking site MySpace. (“You are a bad person and everybody hates you,” read the last message Josh sent her. “Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you.”)

It was later revealed that “Josh” was actually a fake persona created by the mother of one of Megan’s friends. That woman, Lori Drew, was charged and convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, but her conviction was overturned on appeal.

What is your opinion? Join the debate and add your comment below.

According to Wikipedia, “Cyberbullying has…been defined as ‘when the Internet, cell phones or other devices are used to send or post text or images intended to hurt or embarrass another person’….Cyberbullying can be as simple as continuing to send e-mail to someone who has said they want no further contact with the sender, but it may also include threats, sexual remarks, pejorative labels (i.e., hate speech), ganging up on victims by making them the subject of ridicule in forums, and posting false statements as fact aimed at humiliation.

“It is a sad fact that many students do not appreciate the power of their posted online communications—which they might think harmless and amusing when composed—to hurt and destroy their target by exposing the target to humiliation and scorn,” says J. Freedley Hunsicker Jr., senior counsel at Fisher & Phillips LLP in Radnor, Penn.

 

Is Cyberbullying Illegal?

Cyberbullying is a relatively recent occurrence, so few states have laws that specifically criminalize it. Among those that do:

  • California has required schools to create policies addressing cyberbullying and permits schools to suspend or expel students who are cyberbullies.
  • Florida requires schools to notify the parents of all students (including victim and perpetrator) involved in cyberbullying.
  • Massachusetts criminalizes online bullying as well as physical and emotional abuse. Schools are also required to notify parents when bullying occurs at the school.

Texas, Missouri and Washington State also have anti-cyberbullying laws.

Most of these laws put the onus on the schools to address cyberbullying. But laws fail to address two significant issues: It’s not always clear “where” cyberbullying occurs, and many schools are reluctant to discipline students for off-campus behavior. Plus, not all cyberbullying involves students.

In the absence of specific anti-cyberbullying laws, prosecutors instead charge cyberbullies with a host of other crimes, including stalking, harassment, intimidation and invasion of privacy.

Victims can also pursue a civil lawsuit against their bullies, but there’s no guarantee of its success.

“Even the potential lawsuit is fraught with risk,” Hunsicker says. “While the courts hold online comment to be public and therefore subject to the same defamation laws that apply to the news media, there is always a defense argument that the postings are mere hyperbole.”

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