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US Supreme Court Declines to Hear Cyber-bullying Case

What is the Solution to Regulating Student Cyber-bullying Attacks?

The US Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to take two cases involving three separate incidents involving free speech protection for public school students on the Internet.  In all three cases students were punished for posting obscene and derogatory information on students or school officials by using their home computers.

In one "cyber-bullying" case, a female high school student in West Virginia was punished for posting crude and insulting information in 2005 about another female student on a fake page on the MySpace social media site.

A US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July 2011 that officials at Musselman High School could punish the perpetrator without violating her free speech rights because they could reasonably believe that those comments would create a disruption at school.

In a separate case, Blue Mountain School District v. Snyder, two students from Pennsylvania -- one a high-school senior, the other an eighth grader -- were punished for opening parody MySpace profiles of their principals in 2005 and 2007 respectively.

In one fake profile the principal was depicted as a sex-crazed pedophile, while the other that the principal was gay and used drugs.

A federal appeals court in Pennsylvania ruled in June 2011 that the students not be punished because that interfered with their rights to free speech, because the posted information did not disrupt school activities.

The justices give no reasons when they decline to consider a case. However, the denial of certiorari in the two student internet speech case seems to muddy the waters in that the US Circuit Court of Appeals held that schools could punish students for offensive Internet postings while the federal appeals court sided with the free speech rights of such students.  It is indeed unfortunate the Supreme Court chose not to hear the case because cyber-bulling is the most serious problem today in our schools.

On May 7, 2010, the Pew Institute reported the results of its Research Center Internet & American Life Project. Pew found that 32% of online teens have experienced one of the following forms of online harassment: private material such as text or email forwarded without permission; receiving threatening messages; someone spreading a rumor about them online; and someone posting an embarassing picture of them online without permission.

Four cases of cyber-bullying that led to suicides stand out in my mind. On October 7, 2003, 13-year-old Ryan Patrick Halligan of Vermont hung himself in his bathroom after he had been bullied online. Ryan had been taunted and insulted about his allegedly being gay.

In July 2008, Sycamore, Ohio, high-school graduate Jessica Logan hung herself in her bedroom after nude photos sent to her boyfriend were sent to other high school girls after they broke up. The girls were harassing her, calling her a slut and a whore. Her death illustrates the dangers of sending sexually explicit messages or photographs, primarily between mobile phones (sexting).

On March 21, 2010, popular 17-year-old soccer star Alexis Pilkington of New York took her life following vicious taunts on Facebook. Pilkington’s popularity and success in soccer seems to have created a level of jealousy that prompted the cyber-bullying comments.

On September 19, 2010, 13-year-old Seth Walsh of Tehachapi, California hung himself from a tree in his backyard. Tehachapi Police Chief Jeff Kermode said investigators interviewed some of the teenagers who allegedly taunted Seth for being gay and concluded no crime was committed. The chief told radio station KGET several of the taunters broke down in tears while being questioned and said they wished they had tried to stop the bullying.

Like most states, California has been adding laws to the books to protect the bullied. An existing law that gives school officials the right to suspend or expel a student for bullying another student over the Internet or by other electronic means has been updated to include bullying others through social networking websites. The bill, AB 746, sponsored by Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D-San Jose) and signed into law by Governor Brown, goes into effect on January 1, 2012.

Perhaps this is the answer to the problem, that is, to let each state decide how to regulate cyber-bullying activity. However, when it comes to vulnerable school children, I just can’t help but feel that a national standard is necessary to avoid a situation where a student in one state can post anything and everything about another on the Internet whereas it is a crime to do so in another state. When the health and safety of young people are at stake there needs to be a national standard that creates a national value system and societal ethic.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 19, 2012