Taking the Fight Against Cyber-Bullies Outside The School House Gate

Michael Telfer, Editing Chair, Albany Government Law Review Member

With the widespread use of the Internet in the last decade and the creation of websites such as Facebook and YouTube, the ability for people to connect with one another across the globe and with people they have lost touch with has been enthusiastically welcomed.  With the great benefits that new technology brings, also comes the ability for people to use it to the detriment of others.

Bullying has existed “as long as schools have,” but today bullying is no longer confined to the school house gates or even prevented at one’s front door, as it can “follow students to their rooms . . . their cell phones[,] or online.”[1] Through cyber-bullying, bullies can now “harass, threaten or intimidate others” by “e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, chat rooms, pagers, cell phones, and gaming systems.”[2] Specifically, bullies engage in cyber-bullying by videotaping their peers with their cell phones and posting embarrassing videos online through YouTube, creating fake Facebook profiles to steal the identify of other students,[3] and posting embarrassing comments on Facebook to humiliate other students.[4] Reports of students who have been victims of cyber-bullying have become nationwide news stories, such as the suicide of a freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey who “jumped to his death . . . after his dormitory roommate and another student posted a video of sexual encounters he had with another man online.”[5]

As has been addressed in a previous Fireplace article, the issue of whether school districts can punish students for cyber-bullying when the student’s right to free speech is implicated is not uniformly defined.[6] Due to the fact that these incidents exist off of school grounds, the ability for schools to take action against cyber-bullies is limited because action taken by a school district can only be justified if the student’s online speech “materially disrupts class work or involves substantial disorder o[f] the rights of others.”[7] The uncertainty of the state of the law is not helped by the fact that the Supreme Court has “not addressed online student speech.”[8] The ability of schools to combat cyber-bullying has been tested in at least one case in California where a parent had his child’s suspension, due to the posting of a video on YouTube, overturned when the court found the disruption to the school caused by the video posting was “only minimal.”[9]

Since cyber-bullying usually impacts one student’s emotional well being and does not affect the larger school environment, students may be unable to rely on their school to protect them if cyber-bullying happens outside of school, which in most cases it does.   The question this article seeks to answer is whether victims of cyber-bullying have legal remedies through either criminal or civil laws of New York.

Continue reading “Taking the Fight Against Cyber-Bullies Outside The School House Gate”

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ACLU Sues School in Online Photo Controversy: Female Students Punished for Racy MySpace Pictures

Brittany Grome, Government Law Review Member

Background

           In Indianapolis, Indiana, two sophomore girls at Churubusco High School were punished by the school district for posting sexually suggestive photos on their MySpace pages.[1] According to the complaint, the girls dressed in lingerie and pretended to lick “penis-shaped” lollipops.[2] These photos were taken during their summer break at a sleepover party.[3] The school district banned the girls from participating in extracurricular activities for one full year, which was later reduced to a quarter of the volleyball season.[4] As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal lawsuit on the girls’ behalf, arguing that the Churubusco School District violated the girls’ constitutionally protected First Amendment right to free speech.[5] The ACLU also argues that the school district went too far and publicly embarrassed the girls when it forced them to apologize to an all male coaching board and mandated that the girls undergo counseling.[6]

           Currently, there is no set standard of how school districts should address student online activity that occurs outside of school. This is a growing controversy and teens that have done similar things in the past have faced prosecution. In March of this year, a fourteen year old New Jersey student was arrested on child pornography charges when she posted nude pictures of herself on her MySpace profile.[7] Other students have been expelled or lost scholarships.[8] Similarly, in 2006, a seventeen year old student in Pennsylvania was suspended for creating a parody website that made fun of his principal on MySpace.[9] The district court ruled that his off campus actions did not “disrupt school operations.”[10]

             “From the standpoint of young people, there’s no real distinction between online life and offline life . . . it’s just life.”[11] The decision to punish these sophomore girls is drawing a lot of attention and raising many questions. Should students be punished for online activities that take place outside of school? Did the pictures placed online have a substantial effect on school activities?  Was the school district justified in its actions and does it have a right to regulate student out of school online behavior? Does a student shed her First Amendment right to free speech simply because she participates in an extracurricular activity, such as a sports team?

Continue reading “ACLU Sues School in Online Photo Controversy: Female Students Punished for Racy MySpace Pictures”