New N.C. law bars kids from bullying teachers online
RALEIGH, N.C. — A new law took effect Dec. 1 that widens North Carolina’s three-year-old anti-cyberbullying statute to protect school employees.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina saidthe law may be the first of its kind in the country. The group said it would seek plaintiffs for a possible court challenge to change the law, contending it could chill students’ free-speech rights. The law threatens criminal penalties on students who use a computer with “the intent to intimidate or torment a school employee” by engaging in the same online behavior that is already illegal if targeted toward minor.
The law criminalizes targeting a school employee by:
- Building a fake online profile or website;
- Posting private, personal, or sexual information;
- Tampering with their online networks, data or accounts:
- Signing them up to a pornographic website, or:
- Making any statement, whether true or false, likely to provoke someone else to stalk or harass a school worker.
ACLU-NC Policy Director Sarah Preston said the organization opposed the 2009 cyberbullying law aimed at protecting children for the same reason it wants to challenge this year’s extension to school workers: it’s vague, gives prosecutors too much leeway, and aims to punish speech — however stupid — simply because it’s online.
“The reality is that I’m sure students have been complaining about their teachers for as long as there have been students and teachers. They’ve been writing it on bathroom stalls or carving it into desks or whatever. Just because they post it online doesn’t make it suddenly any less protected,” Preston said Nov. 30. “And since we treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, because they write something stupid on the Internet, they could actually face some jail time.”
Penalties could be as much as 60 days in jail or a $1,000 fine for those as young as 16, who are treated as adults under state law. The ACLU wants any student charged under the new law to contact its office so that it can mount a court challenge.
Groups representing teachers sought the new law to punish children who make false accusations against teachers. The law ultimately passed the Legislature with just one opposing vote.
The First Amendment Center is an educational organization and cannot provide legal advice.
Ken Paulson is president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University. He is also the former editor-in-chief of USA Today.
Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, also is senior vice president of the First Amendment Center, a center of the institute. He is a veteran journalist whose career has included work in newspapers, radio, television and online.
John Seigenthaler founded the First Amendment Center in 1991 with the mission of creating national discussion, dialogue and debate about First Amendment rights and values.
Dr. Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. He writes and speaks extensively on religious liberty and religion in American public life.
David L. Hudson Jr. is an expert in First Amendment issues and a regular contributor to the First Amendment Center's website. Hudson teaches law and was a scholar at the First Amendment Center.