Cyberbullying Bill Would Grant Power To Strip Online Anonymity Before Legal Proceedings Begin

from the chilling-students'-speech...-for-the-children dept

The Texas legislature's proposed cyberbullying bill is gathering more opposition. As we covered here last month, the "for the children" bill was meeting resistance from groups actually concerned about the welfare of the state's children.

According to the Texas branch of the National Association of Social Workers, the bill would put more students in harm's way by trimming back counseling and other resources in favor of dumping the problem in the lap of law enforcement. Not only that, but the bill would expand the jurisdiction of school disciplinary procedures to cover actions taken by students off-campus.

The bill has additional problems that need to be addressed before it's passed, as the EFF points out. One of the more dangerous aspects of the proposed legislation is its presumptive stripping of anonymity. Rather than let a court decide whether the party bringing charges has earned the right to uncover the identity of an online commenter, the law hands that power to the aggrieved person before any legal proceedings have commenced.

The bill authorizes subpoenas to investigate potential legal claims arising from any undefined “injury” to a minor before a lawsuit is ever filed. This new process would threaten the First Amendment right to communicate anonymously on the Internet. This right is especially important for people who belong to unpopular groups or who express unpopular messages, who might otherwise stay silent rather than risk retaliation.

In the hypothetical above, suppose the second student anonymously blogged about the classroom comments of the first student, and concluded, “only a jerk would say this in class.” The first student might try to use the bill’s pre-suit subpoena process to unmask the anonymous blogger, based on the pretext of a highly dubious defamation claim. The risk of unmasking would silence many anonymous speakers.

Courts have allowed these efforts to proceed, but this has usually happened after the injured party has made its case for unmasking. This is the "for the children" aspect of the proposal getting in its own way. By presuming the normal legalities of pursuing the identity of anonymous speakers don't apply when the victim is a minor, the law's unintended consequences would harm a greater number of minors who would either be unmasked prematurely or discouraged from participating in online speech.

The EFF has sent a letter [PDF] to the state's legislature opposing the bill as written. It points out other flaws in the bill's language that would either chill speech or severely damage the future of minors caught up in its broad language. If the bill passes unaltered, it's highly unlikely it would survive a constitutional challenge. Too much is left to the discretion of administrators and law enforcement officers employed by schools. The bill says vague things about "rights," but gives these entities the power to decide whose rights are more equal than others.

The Texas bill would expand the power of school officials to discipline youths for “cyberbullying.” The bill’s vague and overbroad definition of that term would include a single email from one student to another that “infringes on the rights of the victim at school.” Those “rights” are not defined.

School officials might use this new power to silence unpopular speech by the very students that some legislators may wish to protect. Suppose that in a current events class, one student said they oppose gay marriage or Black Lives Matter protesters. Suppose further that in response, the leader of that school’s Gay-Straight Alliance or NAACP chapter sent the first student a critical email that concluded, “I wish you would keep your opinion to yourself.” School officials might determine that the second student’s email infringed on the first student’s right to speak in class, and thus impose discipline for sending the email.

Those who support this sort of legislation like to believe no one involved in enforcing the law would interpret the language in such a ridiculous fashion. But as we've seen time and time again, far too many school administrators are capable of interpreting policies and laws in the most unreasonable way possible.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2017 @ 7:02am

    I guess "Trump's aim" is to strip every Amendment Right except for the Second Amendment, but even that is not sure to remain.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2017 @ 7:30am

    " the bill would put more students in harm's way by trimming back counseling and other resources in favor of dumping the problem in the lap of law enforcement. "

    Gotta keep that school to prison pipeline filled some how. Just think of those poor stock holders who invested in our private prison industry, what are they supposed to if you stop putting innocent people in prison?

    Kids these days need to learn their place and start goose stepping with all the other patriotic citizens marching for world domination.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2017 @ 7:43am

    Man who let these idiots be in charge of creating laws. We need to not only hold these dumbass lawmakers accountable but their enablers and voters as well.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2017 @ 8:03am

      Re:

      I am certain a mirror would facilitate the answer to that question.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That Anonymous Coward (profile), 10 Feb 2017 @ 8:32am

      Re:

      Once upon a time parents would talk to their kids & tell them they were being assholes.
      Now parents are scared to make the kids sad or stop seeing them as a friend, so they farm out raising the children to the state. The state knows nothing about the kids or situations, it creates a giant blanket to just cover it all. It stifles everything, because one size has to fit all. It expands the powers of the state to control events that have no connection to the school, for the children.
      Most of these ideas are stupid and only sometimes do they get stopped before bad things happen.

      Look at what happened when people told colleges they have to do more about campus rape. We now have a kangaroo court system more concerned about punishing the penis instead of finding truth. The much better solution would have been requiring them to make sure the 2 parties avoided each other & turned it over to actual police to handle. Instead we have administrators who want to hide rape allegations, are fearful of being branded anti-woman, and often don't look at any facts that might challenge the narrative of men are bad.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    I.T. Guy, 10 Feb 2017 @ 8:22am

    Gotta "love" politics. A law to help with Cyberbullying actually helping Cyberbullies.


    Are we great yet? Still waiting.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 10 Feb 2017 @ 8:44am

    How to strip someone's online anonymonity

    Step 1: accuse anonymous doe of cyber bullying. Waaaaah!
    Step 2: once anonymity is unmasked, do not pursue further litigation.

    Gee that recipe has a familiar sound to it? I wonder where I've seem something like that before where the court is used to discover someone's identity for a fraudulent extortion purpose?

    Step 3: send extortion letter demanding money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    btr1701 (profile), 13 Feb 2017 @ 1:45pm

    Jurisdiction

    Once again, we have a state that either thinks it can legislate for the whole nation (or world), or doesn't realize that this law will only apply within its boundaries. If someone from Oklahoma makes the "offending comment", this law will be useless in unmasking them because people in Oklahoma (or anywhere else) don't have to abide by acts of the Texas Legislature.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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