First Amendment and cyber bullying

In schools across America, cyber bullying is a growing problem. The case of a Missouri teenager who committed suicide after being bullied online has brought the problem into national debate.

Lori Drew, a mother, along with her daughter and an employee created a hoax MySpace profile and harassed Megan Meier. Meier later committed suicide, but Drew escaped punishment.

At Cnet, Caroline McCarthy wrote about the case

“Judge George Wu overturned Drew's guilty verdict, which was issued in November, saying that if Drew had been convicted of a felony in the case, she would already have been sentenced. But because she was convicted of three misdemeanors–a significantly lighter offense than prosecutors originally sought–the constitutionality of the guilty verdict was less clear.

Drew, a Missouri resident, had been convicted of three misdemeanor counts of “accessing protected computers without authorization to obtain information to inflict emotional distress,” each of which could have resulted in a year of jail and a $100,000 fine. But she hadn't been convicted of conspiracy, a felony that could've led to up to 20 years in prison.”

Many wanted Lori Drew to get prison time and the case was emotionally charged. But the fact the she was let go points to a conflicting debate going on about what you can say or do online and what is protected under First Amendment.

National Coalition Against Censorship recently reported on a case of cyber bullying and how far schools can go to control student's speech online, especially if the reported activity happens off school.

“Beverly Vista School, a K-8 school in the Beverly Hills Unified School District, learned this lesson via a November 2009 court ruling, where the federal district court for the Central District of California found that administrators at Beverly Vista had likely violated the First Amendment rights of a middle school student referred to in the records as J.C.

The facts in this case arose when J.C., an eighth grade girl, videotaped a group of her friends “talkin’ smack” about their classmate C.C. The video featured this group of kids saying that C.C. was spoiled, and a slut. J.C. then when home and uploaded the video to YouTube, and informed several classmates, including C.C., of the video’s existence.

The next day, C.C. and her mother informed the school of the video’s existence. C.C. also met with a school counselor for no more than half a class period to discuss how she felt humiliated by the video.”

J.C was later suspended for two days. She sued the school district saying that they violated her right to free speech.

Stephen Balkam at the First Amendment Center Online, discussing “Protecting kids while protecting free speech” says that

“…..but a handful of tragedies should not be used to quickly push through laws that may punish but not eradicate the problem of cyberbullying.

Lawmakers should proceed cautiously before enacting legislation governing off-campus speech that does not “substantially interfere” with school activities. School districts have the most authority to intervene with cyberbullying when the actions occur on school property or on the school computer network. Currently, some states have adopted laws that criminalize cyberbullying or use school discipline codes to punish students for online behavior occurring off campus and after school time.

States with higher profile cases tend to have more stringent anti-cyberbullying legislation passed in reaction to the publicity of a cyberbullying case. If there is going to be legislation at all, there should be a national definition of the problem and a uniform way to address it. States must be aware that there is potential danger of infringing on free-speech rights of students through current and proposed legislation.”

With more and more children and teenagers devoting so much time and energy into their online life, the issue is likely to stay around. There is need to find balance between legislation to protect kids online and their First Amendment rights.

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.