Where cyberbullying meets freedom of speech

Navigating the in between of harassment and the law

Photo courtesy of Pixabay via Creative Commons

Photo courtesy of Pixabay via Creative Commons

By Nora Keely, Author

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In the age of social media, a fine line has formed between freedom of speech and cyberbullying. There are laws regarding the consequences of cyberbullying throughout the states; however, there is a lot of gray area. Cyberbullying is the use of the internet or social media media platforms to say harmful things to other people. One reason this debate is so controversial and has gained heat is because there have been a few cases where teens have killed themselves over comments they received from peers or other people who attacked them online.

Megan Meier is a well known incident. She was targeted by a friend’s mother who pretended to be a boy by the name of Josh. This supposed “Josh” character carried a relationship with Megan and after some time, told her that he did not want to be friends with her anymore which led Meier to commit suicide. The mother, Lori Drew, aka “Josh”, who was in part to blame for Megan’s death some believe, never had charges filed against her. As a result, residents of the town were outraged and misdemeanor laws against Internet harassment were passed.

An article on CBS News starts with the story of Megan Meier and goes on to reference a similar story to show how devastating the effects of bullying can be. Cyberbullying is not so rare but as we combat the problem, we need to approach it with some common sense. Studies from both the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center have shown that about one-third of teens have been victims of cyberbullying and an equal number have bullied or harassed others.” A whopping one third, this statistic says, is how many teens have either partaken in bullying or been the victim of it and what is being argued, is whether the tormentor should be let off the hook due to everyone’s protections under the First Amendment. Following that paragraph, the author continues to say that what is needed is a nationwide curriculum of some sort in school systems to really address and educate teenagers on the serious subject which is bullying, including cyber.

Some say that with the use of the internet, it is easier to say harmful things than in face-to-face interaction. Freshman Maddy Davis who is active on many social media apps and believes high school students rely on these platforms in so much of their lives now stated,

When asked about the First Amendment protections and their impact when it comes to cyberbullying, she said that nothing justifies one person being cruel to another.

A post on the Lindley Law Office blog talks about the different definitions of cyberbullying and collects past jurisdictions of cyberbullying cases and compares the differing decisions of courts. As technology continues to be used as an important tool for everyday communication, legislatures will grapple with balancing the interest of protecting minors from the impacts of hurtful and threatening communication and protecting speech under the First Amendment.  Unfortunately, many more children are likely to suffer the harmful effects of cyber-bullying before legislators find a way to write laws that are both constitutional and comprehensive to address cyber-bullying.” To date, the Supreme Court has not been involved in the issues like the ones aforementioned as much, and the choices have fallen into local and state courts.

Although no one wants to see a child or teen be the victim of cyberbullying and have to contemplate suicide, sometimes the First Amendment protections give bullies a way to justify what they are doing and protect themselves from consequences. With the ever growing Internet and social media communities, which is powerful tool, the gray area needs to be sorted in order to keep everyone safe online.