California Court Says Online Bullying Is Not Protected Free Speech
from the first-amendment? dept
There have been plenty of efforts to try to curb “cyberbullying,” often through laws that try to make it illegal to be a jerk. Unfortunately, the concept of cyberbullying is so vague that this creates tremendous problems and unintended consequences. And, on the whole, it seemed unlikely that any such law could withstand First Amendment scrutiny. However, it appears that the First Amendment isn’t always the First Amendment we thought it was.
A California appeals court has ruled that cyberbullying threats are not protected free speech. Now, you can understand why people might like this conceptually. No one likes a bully. But making it against the law to bully is incredibly risky, and almost certainly leads to a very different kind of bullying.
In this particular case, a kid set up a website about himself, and his fellow students posted comments mocking him. It was cruel, though you would think that the simple response would be to take down those comments. Instead, the family went to the police — who said that the comments “did not meet the criteria for criminal prosecution and were protected speech.” The family followed by suing six students and their parents for hate crimes, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Now, there’s no doubt at all that the comments were over the line and incredibly mean. However, it looks like there was a perfectly reasonable process outside of the courts to handle this. Apparently, the father of one kid who made some of the worst comments made his son apologize, grounded him and took away his internet access. It seems that wasn’t enough. Those who were sued filed an anti-SLAPP motion under California’s anti-SLAPP law (one of the strongest in the country), but the judges said that the text was not protected free speech and thus did not fall under the anti-SLAPP provisions. One of the kids, while admitting his own conduct was over the line, said he was just joking around, and trying to top others in responding to the website. The judges, clearly, did not find the joking to be funny. Indeed, it was not funny, but that doesn’t mean you should lose your free speech rights.
One judge dissented and argued strongly that not only was this a mistake, but it would have serious First Amendment consequences:
I share with the majority the view that R.R.’s post, like many that preceded and followed it, was vulgar, nasty, offensive, and disgusting. But, as Justice Harlan wrote in Cohen v. California… although –the immediate consequence of [free speech rights] may often appear to be only verbal tumult, discord, and even offensive utterance[,] . . . [w]e cannot lose sight of the fact that, in what otherwise might seem a trifling and annoying instance of individual distasteful abuse of a privilege, these fundamental societal values [of freedom of speech] are truly implicated.
In concluding that the post was not in connection with an issue of public interest, the majority fails to follow relevant precedent and ignores the substantial evidence that D.C. was a person in the public eye. The majority also creates a broad and groundless exception to the protections of the anti-SLAPP statute, holding that for purposes of the statute, jokes do not constitute communications in connection with issues of public interest…. That is not the law.
It also notes that while the “threats” in questions did seem incredibly distasteful, in context with all the other comments, it seems obvious that they were not real threats:
Reading the sequence of posts from beginning to end, no reasonable person would foresee that any of it would be taken as a serious threat of violence. No reasonable person would believe that (at least) four people were sincerely threatening to take D.C.’s life. Taken together, all of the posts amount to nothing but a lot of adolescent sex-obsessed hyperbolic derision, sarcasm, and repulsive foolishness
In fact, the judge notes that the kid who set up the website didn’t seem bothered by the comments, and was apparently more traumatized by his father filing this lawsuit. Maybe the kid should sue his father?