NY State Legislators Unanimously Pass A Cyberbullying Bill That Can't Be Bothered To Define Cyberbullying [Update]

from the passed-without-an-ounce-of-credibility-or-sincerity dept

Update: Eugene Volokh points out (via email) that there is a definition of cyberbullying on the books in New York state. The bill does not reference it, however. This bill appends Section 12a to Section 12, which is part of the state's consolidated education law. Section 12 says "no student will be subjected to harassment or bullying by employees or students on school property or at a school function." There's still no definition here of bullying or cyberbullying, nor is there anything pointing to the state's definition of these terms. To find a definition, readers must look to Section 11 (again, not mentioned anywhere in the new bill), which is another part of the state's education laws. This is how that section defines cyberbullying:

“Harassment” and “bullying” shall mean the creation of a hostile environment by conduct or by threats, intimidation or abuse, including cyberbullying, that (a) has or would have the effect of unreasonably and substantially interfering with a student's educational performance, opportunities or benefits, or mental, emotional or physical well-being;  or (b) reasonably causes or would reasonably be expected to cause a student to fear for his or her physical safety;  or (c) reasonably causes or would reasonably be expected to cause physical injury or emotional harm to a student;  or (d) occurs off school property and creates or would foreseeably create a risk of substantial disruption within the school environment, where it is foreseeable that the conduct, threats, intimidation or abuse might reach school property.  Acts of harassment and bullying shall include, but not be limited to, those acts based on a person's actual or perceived race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender or sex.  For the purposes of this definition the term “threats, intimidation or abuse” shall include verbal and non-verbal actions.

This definition helps, but it's still an unconstitutional proposal. What might have been limited to acts on school property or those resulting in disruption is now being spread to cover the act (as defined here) anywhere it takes place. Criminalizing the act takes it a step further than it should be taken, and in doing so, infringes on protected speech. Volokh's post give several examples of protected speech that would be considered a criminal act if the law goes into effect. Here are just a couple of them:

[3.] A popular local blogger harshly condemns an under-18-year-old accused of crime, calling him a thug or other words that are viewed as "verbal abuse." The blogger knows that opinion among high schoolers about the accused criminal is sharply divided (perhaps on ethnic, racial, or religious lines), with some people stridently defending him and others condemning him. The article is foreseeably read on school property, as students pull it up on their phones or computers. The article also foreseeably leads some students to again condemning the accused criminal, and others to defend it; foreseeably, a fight breaks out, or threatens to break out, which means the article "foreseeably create[d] a risk of substantial disruption within the school environment." The blogger is a criminal.

[4.] An under-18-year-old high school student becomes a nationally known activist, for instance for gun control or transgender rights or some such. People repeatedly mock his arguments online, and condemn his as an idiot, which a prosecutor thinks is "verbal abuse" and "would reasonably be expected to cause ... emotional harm" to him. The people can be prosecuted, and will be convicted if the jury agrees with the prosecutor.

Tl;dr: I screwed up. It is defined elsewhere in the state's statutes. Unfortunately, there's no acknowledgment of that fact in the bill's wording. It simply assumes everyone knows what cyberbullying is and what is covered under that definition. I can assure you many of those voting for the bill are likely unaware of how much protected speech this bill targets.


New York state legislators are back at it, attempting to tackle cyberbullying with a "new" law. In reality, this would be the legislature's fifth attempt to enact an anti-cyberbullying law. New York attorney Eric Turkewitz was the first to catch the New York's Senate's self-congratulatory tweet. The tweet touted the bill's unanimous passage (a 56-0 vote). But "widespread support" isn't synonymous with "well-crafted law." No state senator wants to appear "soft" on bullying, so the law passes without anyone bothering to ascertain its effectiveness, much less its constitutionality.

For an anti-bullying law to survive a constitutional challenge, it must be exceedingly well-crafted and narrowly-defined. This bill -- with 56-0 support -- has none of that. From Turkewitz's post on the bill:

Just one teensy little problem seems to have escaped the drafters, however. This “cyber-bullying” that they wish to make a misdemeanor has a flaw. I’m almost embarrassed to mention it, but here goes.

Cyber-bullying doesn’t seem to have a definition.

It doesn't. Once you get past the full page of preamble explaining why such a law is needed, you run into this, which defines nothing but who would be protected by the law.

S 12-A. CYBERBULLYING. 1. AS USED IN THIS SECTION, THE FOLLOWING TERMS SHALL HAVE THE FOLLOWING MEANINGS:

A. MINOR SHALL MEAN ANY NATURAL PERSON OR INDIVIDUAL UNDER THE AGE OF EIGHTEEN.
B. PERSON SHALL MEAN ANY NATURAL PERSON OR INDIVIDUAL.

ANY PERSON WHO KNOWINGLY ENGAGES IN A REPEATED COURSE OF CYBERBULLYING OF A MINOR SHALL BE GUILTY OF AN UNCLASSIFIED MISDEMEANOR PUNISHABLE BY A FINE OF NOT MORE THAN ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS, OR BY A PERIOD OF IMPRISONMENT NOT TO EXCEED ONE YEAR, OR BY BOTH SUCH FINE AND IMPRISONMENT.

This act shall take effect immediately.

Up to one year in prison based on a definition apparently to be determined post-arrest by prosecutors or presiding judges. And, apparently, cyberbullying ends once the victim turns 18, so there's no need to extend this dubious protection to adults.

State lawmakers should know better. First, they should know laws attempting to regulate speech must be particular and explicit in their definitions of the prohibited speech. Second, the justification for regulating speech must clearly and heavily outweigh the negative repercussions of the government's act of censorship. All this law has is a statement saying schools are powerless to stop cyberbullying that occurs off campus. That's not nearly enough justification to start handing out misdemeanor charges to mean people.

There have been better-defined bills passed in the state of New York. The county of Albany actually took the trouble to define the terms central to the law.

1. "any act of communicating … by mechanical or electronic means,”

2. “including posting statements on the internet or through a computer or email network,”

- “disseminating embarrassing or sexually explicit photographs;”

- “disseminating private, personal, false or sexual information,”

- “or sending hate mail,”

3. ”with no legitimate private, personal, or public purpose,”

4. “with the intent to harass, annoy, threaten, abuse, taunt, intimidate, torment, humiliate, or otherwise inflict significant emotional harm on another person.”

This definition is 73 words longer than the state senate's definition of "cyberbullying" and it still couldn't beat a Constitutional challenge. The state's highest court shut down enforcement of the law, noting that its definitions would "criminalize a broad spectrum of speech outside the popular understanding of cyberbullying."

On its fifth attempt to push through anti-cyberbullying legislation, the state senate can't even be bothered to craft a definition narrow enough to be rejected by the state's courts, much less one that would survive even the most cursory challenge.

A bill like this -- one that's seen four previous attempts -- serves one purpose. And it's got nothing to with the children we're always supposed to be thinking about. Here's Scott Greenfield's take:

[T]his law is just a cynical attempt to game the emotions of the electorate, as it has absolutely no chance of passing constitutional muster. The senators didn’t even give it a try, and as much as they may not be the sharpest knives in the legislature, even they know that you can’t criminalize cyberbullying by defining it as cyberbullying.

The proposed law is electioneering dressed up to look like empathethic legislation. It's multiple campaign efforts being funded by taxpayers who not only pay the salaries of legislators who can't be bothered to do their job properly, but will also be on the hook for legal fees if the bill becomes law and has to be defended in court. When one of these partners in unanimous useless ask for donations during the next election run, point to bullshit like this and tell them you gave at the office.

Filed Under: cyberbullying, definitions, new york


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  1. icon
    Gary (profile), 7 Jun 2018 @ 12:51pm

    Re: 230

    More 230 FUD. 230 is based on court rulings that held ISP liable because it moderated, which directly led to a lack of moderation. "If we didn't read it, it didn't happen."
    By your reasoning, all email and texting should be banned because it violates human dignity.

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