Being mean has gone viral, spreading from school yards and buses to the Internet, causing countless children to despair-even commit suicide-victims of bullying, cyber and otherwise.
As a result, forty-four states have now instituted their own anti-bullying laws, and New Jersey's "Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights" only needs Governor Christie's signature. Said Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle (D-Bergen), "This legislation makes it clear that preventing and responding to incidents of harassment, intimidation, and bullying are not optional."
The need cannot be overstated, as victimized kids can no longer run home and find sanctuary. Cyberbullies circulate their maliciousness 24/7, and there's no escaping it. Indefensible, for sure, yet some parents consider spreading hurtfulness a protected right and are going to court to make their case.
They don't always win, though. Two heralded decisions stand out, favoring a school's right to discipline its cyberbullies:
• J.S. ex rel. Snyder v. Blue Mountain School District: In February, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Pennsylvania school did not violate a middle schooler's free speech rights when she was suspended for posting a fake profile of her principal on MySpace describing him in lewd terms as a pedophile and sex addict.
• Doninger v. Niehoff: Here, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a school district did not violate a student's First Amendment rights when it disciplined her for calling school administrators as "the douche bags in the central office" on her personal blog.
Meanwhile, a California federal court held that a student could be disciplined for posting a YouTube slideshow of her middle school English teacher's murder.
In another case, a Washington federal court upheld the 40-day suspension of a high schooler who videotaped his teacher in class, then posted it on YouTube with sexually suggestive graphics and music.
In other instances, however, rulings have found against schools taking punitive measures-all in the name of freedom of speech:
• Layschock v. Hermitage School District: Here, a Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a high schooler could NOT be punished for portraying his principal as "a drunk," "drug user," and "big whore," ruling that such speech is protected by the First Amendment, since it wasn't proven that the profile was potentially disruptive.
• J.C. v. Beverly Hills Unified School District et al: In this case, when a student posted a YouTube video belittling an eighth grader as "spoiled," "a brat," and "a slut," she was suspended for two days. Her parents, however, claimed that violated their daughter's right to be mean in cyberspace, and U.S. District Judge agreed because he found that it caused little disruption.
Stay tuned as more parents take their cyberbullying children's side by going to court, making headlines, and spurring officials to take more action. As it is, even the federal government is getting involved by developing anti-bullying strategies and highlighting effective programs on its BullyingInfo.org site.
And, while, to date, no case has reached the Supreme Court, that may very well change. In the meantime, officials, such as Virginia's Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli are weighing in. His stated legal opinion is that schools have the right to seize students' cell phones and laptops and can also read their text messages if there is "reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated either the law or the rules of the school."
Parents can do their part, too, by practicing kindness and respect for others, monitoring their children's online activities and experiences, and making them mindful that mean-spiritedness is not just hurtful, it can have dire consequences. Remind them, too, that eventually, what goes around comes around...