Freedom of Speech in the Era of Cyber Bullying
April 6, 2014
As we are living in the age of technology, we are seeing our youth being victimized by a new phenomenon of bullying, called cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is defined as the use of information and communication technologies such as email, cell phones and pager text messages, instant messaging, defamatory personal Web sites, and defamatory online personal polling Web sites, to support deliberate repeated and hostile behavior by an individual or group, which is intended to harm others. Cyberbullying can also employ media such as PDAs, blogs, and social networks (Beckstrom, 2008). This form of bullying is progressive because it can happen instantly due to the technology involved, whereas traditional bullying tends to take longer to evolve and happens
over an extended period of time. Since the Ryan Halligan case in 2003, there has been a string of cyberbullying suicides which have made states and school districts react by imposing policies to deter and essentially criminalize cyberbullying which happens on and off campus. The issue at hand is whether state legislature and school districts enacting laws and policies regarding students’ speech in terms of off campus cyber speech, is interfering with the students’ free speech rights. Three Supreme Court cases have been cited in recent cyberbullying cases, in the context of the speech of students and the authority of the school district; Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), Bethel v. Fraser (1986), Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988).
Prior to technological advances that enhance our personal communication, there were three landmark Supreme Court cases that regulated students’ speech and the schools authority to intervene. In 1969, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, set up the Tinker Standard under which a students’ speech may be suppressed if it amounts to (1) a substantial or material disruption or (2) invades the rights of other students (Beckstrom, 2008). Then Bethel v. Fraser in 1986, gave public schools the right to prohibit vulgar and offensive terms in public discourse, and left the determination of what is inappropriate speech in a classroom or school assembly up to the school board. The final case was Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier in 1988, when the court held the school has the right to censor the content of the schools’ newspaper if they deem the content to be inappropriate. The newspaper is a non-public forum since it is part of the school curriculum, funded by the school district, and supervised by a school official. Years after these Supreme Court cases, when technology became a factor of students’ speech, the lower courts found that off campus cyber speech caused a “substantial disruption” in school, and therefore such speech was not protected by First Amendments rights (Beckstrom, 2008). Two of these cases are...