Attorney presents primer on cyberbullying

Friday, November 9, 2012

Cyberbullying is a national problem affecting many students, teachers, school administrators, parents and others. The White House has held conferences on the subject and state laws require school districts to address the problem through anti-bullying policies. A few students have taken their own lives from cyberbullying’s devastating impact.

James C. Hanks, a Des Moines, Iowa-based attorney, has written an excellent primer on cyberbullying for the American Bar Association titled School Bullying: How Long is the Arm of the Law? Hanks brings impeccable credentials to this area, having served as the chair of the Council of School Attorneys for the National School Boards Association and edited and contributed to a previous book on school violence.

Hanks discusses different state laws on cyberbullying, provides an overview of First Amendment issues, reviews relevant cases of students punished for offensive online speech and offers suggestions for dealing with the problem.

He aptly notes the leading legal standard for evaluating whether school administrators can punish students for online speech — created on or off campus — is the famous U.S. Supreme Court decision on black armbands, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District  (1969). In Tinker, the Supreme Court said school officials can punish students for their speech if the officials can reasonably forecast the speech will cause a substantial disruption of school activities or invade the rights of others.

Hanks explains the lack of legal precedent concerning when certain student speech may invade the rights of others — a subject I’ve addressed in previous commentaries for the First Amendment Center. This “invasion of the rights of others” could be used to punish those who engage in online bullying. Hanks writes “the time is certainly ripe for advocacy groups to direct the attention of the courts to this standard because it would dramatically change the judicial discourse concerning bullying that is based on speech.”

This incisive book contains more than a review of laws and cases. It also offers suggestions for dealing with the problem of cyberbullying, ranging from “carefully drafted” policies and “school-based peer mediation programs.”

This book is highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand the burgeoning legal issues — including free-speech controversies — surrounding the regulation of cyberbullying.

Tags: , ,