There's been a lot of talk and hype about "cyberbullying," these days. There's no doubt, of course, that school bullying is something that many kids have to deal with, and it's not enjoyable at all. In the age of the internet, of course, that bullying can not only be more intense, but it can go much further than it used to, following you into your home and
being exposed to a much wider audience. And yet, it still feels like some of the moral panic around "cyberbullying" is blown totally out of proportion. The fact is, some people out there are going to be jerks, and part of growing up, unfortunately, is learning to deal with jerks. That doesn't make it a good experience, but you simply can't outlaw being a jerk, no matter how hard you try
. In fact, one of the things that's missing in so many of these discussions about "cyberbullying" is the First Amendment, which protects speech you don't like, just as much as the speech you do. Now, obviously, it is possible to go over the line, into a threat or causing real harm, but we do need to be careful not to get so over-protective that we forget that even most jerky behavior is protected free speech.
Thankfully, some courts still remember this point. Michael Scott
points us to a recent ruling about a student who was suspended from school after she posted to YouTube a video of herself and some friends making fun of another girl at school. The student argued that the suspension was a violation of her First Amendment rights, in particular because the speech was done off-campus (something that's come up a lot in various school suspension cases). The court ruled that schools can discipline students for off-campus activities but
that they need to be aware of First Amendment rights, and in this case, the student's actions did not rise to the level necessary to take action. The court cited the famous Tinker v. Des Moines
case, which is the seminal case when it comes to student free speech issues, noting that while this video may have been mean, it did not rise to the level of creating a "substantial disruption."