The Charlotte Observer reports that under North Carolina’s School Violence Prevention Act of 2012 (SVPA), it will be a misdemeanor for students to post something online “with the intent to intimidate or torment a school employee.” This expansion of the state’s existing cyberbullying law, that goes into effect December 1, 2012, may be the first of its kind in the country. The SVPA builds on a similar law passed in 2009 that criminalized online bullying of a student or a student’s parent or guardian.
Legislators say the law is necessary to keep up with the rise of students on social media. According to state Senator Tommy Tucker, the law is necessary to deter online posting of statements that “could damage the reputation and character of a teacher ….”
However, critics insist that what constitutes cyberbullying is not clear in the law and that fear of punishment could stifle free speech. State law has never defined the word “intimidate,” said Sarah Preston, Policy Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. “Without definitions of ‘torment’ or ‘intimidate,’ it’s not clear what online activity will violate the law,” Preston said. “It does invite arbitrary enforcement because there’s no clear legal standard.”
Preston also notes that the law extends beyond libel, by criminalizing statements, “whether true or false,” that could provoke someone to harass a school employee. “Even if you post a factual statement about your teacher, then it could be criminal depending on the interpretation of those words,” Preston said.
Tucker counters that intimidation has a clear definition – “to use a tactic that would cause someone to change one’s behavior” – that does not need to be spelled out in the law. Activities made illegal by the statute could include building a fake profile or website; posting personal or sexual information about school employees; and signing school employees up for pornographic websites or junk mail.
The law might be the first in the country to make student-on-teacher cyberbullying a crime, both Tucker and Preston said. The offense is a Class 2 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail.
Local district attorneys have charged 37 people under the 2009 cyberbullying law, though only three have been convicted, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
Cyberbullying cases are difficult to prosecute, said Jameson Marks, a Johnston County assistant district attorney. “Just because something was posted from their account doesn’t mean that they’re the ones who posted it,” Marks said. “People get pranked like that a lot. Being able to prove that it was that person who sat at that computer and typed that is difficult.”
The 2009 law prompted Johnston County school leaders to create a policy this summer that regulates Internet use off-campus, said Oliver Johnston, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services. The rules ban all messages that violate school regulations or “harass, bully or intimidate employees or other students.” Promoting gang activity, school vandalism and threats of physical harm are also regulated. The policy is designed to combat problems within school, Johnston said, while the state law helps parents and children with bullying outside of school.
“Bullying has always been an issue of concern for schools,” Johnston said. “It’s just that it’s evolved from the playground, where we could view physical bullying, to online.” Nearly all high school students use Facebook, and a growing number are getting smartphones, said Mark Jewell, Vice President of the N.C. Association of Educators, which supports the law. Cyberbullying against students and teachers is becoming more prevalent, he said. “It’s been done not only to teachers, but administrators and principals,” Jewell said. “Educators were definitely saying that kids, students and staff need to be protected with legislation.”
The Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina, based in Charlotte, fought for the 2012 law. President Judy Kidd said a criminal penalty is necessary because students will not stop harassing teachers online if school regulations are their only threat of punishment.
“What the law does is protect the teachers against false accusations, which is a real problem – some students will stoop to any level to get what they want,” Kidd said. “If you’re ever going to get a society under control, there have to be penalties for doing things that are wrong.”
Source: The Charlotte Observer, 10/23/12, By Kelly Poe
[Editor's Note: The pertinent part of the North Carolina legislation, Session Law 2012-149, that becomes effective on December 1, 2012, states:
[I]t shall be unlawful for any student to use a computer or computer network to do any of the following:
(1) With the intent to intimidate or torment a school employee, do any of the following:
a. Build a fake profile or Web site.
b. Post or encourage others to post on the Internet private, personal, or sexual information pertaining to a school employee.
c. Post a real or doctored image of the school employee on the Internet.
d. Access, alter, or erase any computer network, computer data, computer program, or computer software, including breaking into a password-protected account or stealing or otherwise accessing passwords.
e. Use a computer system for repeated, continuing, or sustained electronic communications, including electronic mail or other transmissions, to a school employee.
(2) Make any statement, whether true or false, intending to immediately provoke, and that is likely to provoke, any third party to stalk or harass a school employee.
(3) Copy and disseminate, or cause to be made, an unauthorized copy of any data pertaining to a school employee for the purpose of intimidating or tormenting that school employee (in any form, including, but not limited to, any printed or electronic form of computer data, computer programs, or computer software residing in, communicated by, or produced by a computer or computer network).
(4) Sign up a school employee for a pornographic Internet site with the intent to intimidate or torment the employee.
(5) Without authorization of the school employee, sign up a school employee for electronic mailing lists or to receive junk electronic messages and instant messages, with the intent to intimidate or torment the school employee.
In March 2012, Legal Clips summarized the decision by a Mississippi federal district court in Bell v. Itawamba Cnty. Sch. Bd., which held that school officials did not violate a student’s free speech rights when they disciplined him for posting a “rap” song he composed and performed off-campus, and posted on his Facebook page. The court concluded that Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969), specifically held that school officials can regulate off-campus speech/expression that causes material or substantial disruption at school. The song accused two coaches of flirting and inappropriate contact with female students.]