Cyber Bullying Vs The First Amendment: A Supreme Court Issue

Bullying at our educational schools has been a top-of-mind challenge over the last several years. Part of the overall problem is the epidemic of cyber bullying, which poses new risks for educators. And these issues are not isolated to student-on-student bullying – principals and teachers are also targets of cyber bullying.

Example of recent cyber bullying events at schools throughout our country:

  • A principal at a middle school in Pennsylvania saw his photo online with a description that said, “hairy sex addict” and “pervert”.
  • Another principal at a high school in Northern Pennsylvania saw a profile of himself on MySpace describing himself as a “big fag”, “whore” and a drug user.
  • In West Virginia, a girl created an online site to maliciously attack another girl at the school, calling her a “slut” who has herpes.

These students were suspended for their actions and then filed suits against the principals and school districts, saying the First Amendment protected them from being punished for postings from their home computers. In two of the cases, the students won.

Supreme Court Asked to Look at Student Rights

The U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to decide on the dividing line between the rights of students to freely use their own computers and a school official’s authority to prevent online harassment of other students and staff.

School officials want to know what they can and cannot do. The Internet and social media have erased the line between what is public and private in addition to the distinction between on- and off-campus conduct. Educators are looking for guidance as to what to do as new technology and outdated, confusing legal rules are causing risks that they’re at a lost as to how to address.

“This affects every educator in this country,” said James McGonigle, principal at Blue Mountain Middle School in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania. Mr. McGonigle was the principal portrayed as a hairy sex addict. After imposing a 10-day suspension against the girl who wrote the disparaging profile, she and her parents sued him in federal court. The parents lost before a federal judge, but then last summer they won before the full 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Pennsylvania. According to the rule, the posting “had no substantial disruption” at the school, and courts did not “allow schools to punish students for off-campus speech.”

“The courts need to explain when school officials have the power to regulate off-campus student speech,” said David I. Hudson, a First Amendment scholar at Vanderbilt University.”

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Source Material: Los Angeles Times & the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill