Matthew T. Mangino
The Delaware County Daily Times
September 23, 2013
Recently, the dark side of social media made headlines across the country as authorities investigated the role of cyberbullying in the suicide of Rebecca Ann Sedwick, a 12-year-old Florida girl who jumped to her death from an abandoned cement plant near her home.
Friends and family said she suffered constant online harassment from friends who had savagely turned against her in a dispute over a boyfriend.
We are constantly reminded that bullying is no longer hurtful words exchanged between students in hallways and bathrooms and by notes passed in classrooms.
About 20 percent of young people have been the victim of cyberbullying, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center, a clearinghouse of information on cyberbullying. About 15 percent of teens have admitted they have bullied or ridiculed others on social media, photo-sharing and other websites, reported the Los Angeles Times.
According to the website of Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane cyberbullying can include, but is not limited to:
Sending cruel, vicious or threatening e-mails.
Creating Web sites that have stories, pictures and jokes ridiculing others.
Posting pictures of other students/kids online with derogatory phrases or questions attached to them.
Using someone else’s e-mail to send vicious or incriminating e-mails to others.
Using instant messaging tools to harass others.
The law in Pennsylvania currently imposes criminal liability for engaging in a course of conduct that causes emotional distress by electronic means including electronic mail, Internet and wireless communication.
Pennsylvania law also provides that schools must adopt a policy on the use of electronic communication with intent to bully in a school setting. The policy is limited—“school setting” is defined as in school, on school grounds, in school vehicles, at bus stops and during school activities.
When the Pennsylvania House of Representatives reconvenes in Harrisburg for the fall session, proposals to deal with cyberbullying will be one of the issues that legislators address.
House Bill 156, also known as the Pennsylvania Safe Schools or PASS ACT, would require clearer definitions of bullying and cyberbullying, provide prevention and remediation tools for all teachers and school staff on incidents of bullying, establish reporting requirements and allow for parents and the community to support the adoption of anti-bullying policies.
House Bill 1163 would make cyber harassment of a child a punishable offense. This legislation would prohibit the use of electronic communications to repeatedly make statements or offer opinions about a child’s sexuality or sexual activity or make statements that significantly ridicule, demean or cause serious embarrassment to a child.
“The consequences can be, we found, very devastating to a child. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has characterized cyberbullying as an emergency public health problem.
Not everyone is behind the crusade to eradicate cyberbullying, reported WHYY. The Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union opposes the legislation, saying it is not constitutional to censor free speech online just because it is mean-spirited and directed at a child.
However, Audrey Rogers, a professor at Pace Law School, told USA Today words can be criminal. “You’re not allowed to use your words to harass, annoy or intimidate someone,” she said. “It’s clear the law allows you to outlaw certain kinds of speech.”
The courts are a mixed bag in Pennsylvania. In J.S. v. Bethlehem Area School District, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that “where speech that is aimed at a specific school and/or its personnel is brought onto the school campus or accessed at school by its originator, the speech will be considered on-campus speech.”
The U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals said the school generally “cannot punish a student for expressive conduct that originated outside of the schoolhouse.”
These cases leave unclear the right of school officials to regulate or discipline conduct on social media that has a negative influence on the school environment.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George. P.C. and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pa. You can read his blog every day at www.delcotimes.com and follow him on twitter @MatthewTMangino.
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