Worries About Cyberbullying Bill Include Jailed Teens And Free Speech Issues

Feb 14, 2014

Credit Wen Tong Neo

Following the suicide death last year of a Florida teenager who’d been cyber bullied, lawmakers are looking for ways to crack down on online harassment. But Regan McCarthy reports a measure to do just that raises questions about free speech rights and saddling teens with criminal records.

Teenagers can have a reputation for being well… mean. And Altamonte Springs Republican Senator David Simmons says the anonymity and far reach that comes with social media has only magnified that.

“The power of the internet to destroy a person’s life is incalculable. The fact that what used to take extreme difficulty if you were going to bully somebody or if you were going to defame them or even stalk them has been exponentially increased by the internet,” Simmons said.

And some of the stories and examples of cyber bulling that can be found online speak to Simmons’ point. One young woman has devoted her entire Facebook page to posting about another young woman. Her posts range from accusing the victim of having sexually transmitted diseases to wishing her a failed pregnancy.

Simmons says his bill would give law enforcement a way to prosecute harassment that’s constant, causes serious emotional distress and is without a legitimate purpose. Under his bill cyberbullying would become a misdemeanor. But some lawmakers and even school officials say they’re worried making bullying a crime would give schools another reason to send kids to the police instead of trying to deal with the issues themselves.  Pensacola Republican Senator Greg Evers says he’s doesn’t think young people fully understand what bullying is.

“And I question when that principal is going to look in and say  ‘whoo, that’s a criminal act and I’m not going to get involved.’ Because I think all too ready the administration of these schools are looking at that right now and trying to push it off to get law enforcement involved to make a criminal out of an 8-year-old,” Evers said.

And Justin Patchin, Co-Director of the Cyber Bullying Research Center, says Evers has a point.

“We know from brain research and developmental research in general that adolescents don’t have the capacity to think about the long term consequences of their action,” Patchin said.

Patchin says a study of tragic situations across the globe shows teens who’ve been involved in cyberbullying had no idea their actions might cause someone to commit suicide. He says teens just don’t think along those lines.

“Similarly, they don’t typically think along the lines of ‘I’m not going to do this because I don’t want to be arrested.’  You know, so I don’t think that this law is going to do much to deter future cyber bullies from engaging in this behavior. You know, it’s not like a 16-year-old is going to stop and think ‘well, I might get arrested and I might get charged with a misdemeanor, so I better not do this,’” Patchin said.

But Senator Simmons says people don’t get a pass just for being young.

“That’s what’s wrong right now. Is that there appear to be a group of individuals who think they can destroy the lives of other people, don’t care about the consequences of destroying the lives of other people and think they’re going to get a free pass. The answer is, enough is enough,” Simmons said.

Patchin says his organization encourages education instead of more rules, and suggest offering money schools can use to provide training, increase counseling services and develop a curriculum. And Simmons says that’s a start, but he’d also like to see less violence on TV.

Meanwhile, another issue Simmons’ bill brings up is a concern about First Amendment rights.  Last year, a Texas teen landed in jail for Facebook comments the state called “terroristic,” but the teen says he made sarcastically. So far the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida – typically a First Amendment and Civil Rights defender -- hasn’t jumped on the issue, but Patchin says he thinks it’s worth watching.

“You know, do I have the right to say something and if you don’t like it then is it considered cyber bullying and then can I get in trouble. And that is a significant cause for concern,” Patchin said.

But Patchin says free speech rights are different for students.  For example, they’re allowed to exercise those rights until what they’re saying  starts disrupting what’s going on at school. And Simmons says his measure, which would affect people of any age, won’t infringe on anyone’s First Amendment Rights. He says there’s a clear line between cyberbullying and free speech. Like obscenity, he says, people will know it when they see it.