Monday, 29 December 2003
Cyberbullying and school (in)action
The Christian Science Monitor has a feature article by Amanda Paulson on "cyberbullying." The article outlines the problem, analyzes it as merely a new platform for old-fashioned bullying, and discusses the perils of censoring speach for short-term disciplinary goals. I think that analysis is on the right track, but I would like to add a few points.
The article ignores the grandaddy of all cyberbullying cases and the publicity that surrounded it — the case of Jake Baker and the University of Michigan. Mr. Baker's First Amendment defense ultimately led to his exoneration of charges of making threats. (See the EFF case archive for comprehensive information.) The CS Monitor article does, however, discuss the more recent case of "Ghyslain, the Canadian teenager who gained notoriety this year as 'the Star Wars kid.'" This young man videotaped himself goofing around with a broomstick, as if it were a fighting staff.
Some peers got hold of the video, uploaded it to the Internet, and started passing it around. Doctored videos, splicing him into "The Matrix," "The Terminator," or the musical "Chicago," with added special effects and sounds, soon followed. He's now the most downloaded male of the year. According to news reports, he was forced to drop out of school and seek psychiatric help.
The article also mentions that (public) schools may lack the authority to shut down off-campus channels of speech used for bullying. The author seems to divide this into two distinct points, one practical and one legal, but it could stand some clarification. First, schools lack the practical ability to censor such centralized speech channels as web-based bulletin boards and instant messaging networks — because the school is not the central entity. These are generally physically controlled by private companies. When it comes to open and decentralized channels (like email, IRC, or usenet), the school has no chance. Second, the legal barriers. Any action that schools take or fail to take can open them up to the modern American passtime, lawsuits. Any course of action necessarily requires the school to make judgments that pit one student's civil rights against another's — specifically, the right of the bully to speak vs. the right of the victim to have a public education free from harassment. Schools are understandably reluctant to break any new ground in this context. If I were a school board lawyer, I might recommend the most conservative course of action I could think of.
However, schools are not always so loathe to target Internet speech that is generated off-campus. Some get trigger happy when a student's web site criticizes teachers or administrators. Just the other day, I blogged on a recent case involving the Oceanport School District in New Jersey. I could probably turn up ten more examples in as many minutes on Google.
Finally, I want to highlight a case described in the article that displays the best the First Amendment has to offer. "J. Guidetti, principal of Calabasas High School, did get involved, after comments on schoolscandals.com caused many of his students to be depressed, angry, or simply unable to focus on school." All of Guidetti's initial efforts failed — as long as he used a law-enforcement approach. Then, he decided to counter speech with speech:
Eventually, a local radio station got involved and put enough pressure on the people running the site — a father-son duo — that they took it down in the spring. Already, there's a schoolscandals2 — relatively harmless, so far. Guidetti checks it regularly for offensive content, one of the ever-growing tasks of a 21st-century principal.
To be clear, I do not advocate publicly shaming people for their speech. However, opinions that wilt in sunlight are exactly the sort that the Framers of the constitution believed could be controlled by encouraging counter-speech. Guidetti engaged in honest public debate, convinced more people than his opponents, and won the day. By taking his case to the airwaves, Guidetti created speech where he had previously tried to destroy it, and liberty had a rare chance to serve a utilitarian purpose.