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.