Risk Management: Cyber Bullying Suits Enter the Legal Landscape
In February we wrote a blog on cyber bullying and the Supreme Court, which was 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. Now, victims of cyber bullying are fighting back with lawsuits.
Recently, a girl at a Georgia middle school, who was bullied on Facebook and reported the incidences to police and school officials, hit her two classmates with a libel lawsuit after she was told not much could be done because the harassment took place off campus.
The problem lies in that, although almost every state has a law or policy prohibiting cyber bullying, very few deal with intimidation outside of school property. Even those that try to deal with the issue are grappling with whether free speech rights allow students to say what they want when they’re not at school. This was illustrated in the case we discussed in a previous blog post about the Pennsylvania school that suspended a student after he created a MySpace page maligning the principal. A federal judge, who found that school officials failed to show the student’s profile disrupted school operations, overturned the suspension. An appeals court later upheld the judge’s decision.
What can educational institutions do to deal with cyber bullying?
Schools can be very effective brokers in working with parents to stop and remedy cyber-bullying situations. They can also educate the students on cyber ethics and the law. If schools are creative, they can sometimes avoid the claim that their actions exceeded their legal authority for off-campus cyber-bullying actions. One way is to include a provision to the school’s acceptable use policy reserving the right to discipline the student for actions taken off-campus if they are intended to have an effect on a student or they adversely affect the safety and well-being of student while in school. Of course, this should be done with legal advice. And although such a policy provision cannot prevent potential suits against the schools for allegedly exceeding authority or violating a student’s free speech, it can be a step towards dealing with this ever-growing problem in schools across the country.
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