Cyberbullying proposals win support in Florida Legislature, raise legal questions

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMarch 20, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE — Weeks after students in Pasco County filmed a vicious attack on a classmate and posted the video online, state lawmakers want to empower principals to better police cyberbullying.

It might not be that easy.

Although proposed legislation has found widespread support among Republicans and Democrats alike — and won the support of a second House committee Tuesday — some observers say the bills raise complex questions about free speech. Complicating matters, most cyberbullying takes place outside of school, and has traditionally been considered off-limits for school administrators.

"The question is, how far can a school go?" said Bob Harris, an attorney for the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium, who raised concerns about principals having to discipline students for out-of-school conduct. "Can you control the conduct of students outside of your gates?"

Lawmakers nationwide are searching for answers.

Already, 16 states have amended their bullying laws to include Internet-based harassment and taunting, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center. Ten of those laws specifically address actions that take place off campus.

In Florida, several recent incidents at public schools have thrust the issue into the public eye.

In December, a 16-year-old girl in Hudson hanged herself after anonymous visitors to a social-media site called her names and said she should die. Two months later, two separate beatings of Tampa Bay-area students were captured on video and posted to Facebook.

Cyberbullying may also be to blame for a recent scandal at a high school in South Florida. Some students blame their classmates for posting naked photographs of their female peers to a website earlier this year.

"In many ways, (cyberbullying) is the worst kind of bullying because it has a permanency to it," said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican. "Once something is in the ether of the Internet, it's not easy to retrieve, and often impossible to retrieve."

The proposals being considered in Florida would add cyberbullying to the existing law prohibiting bullying in schools.

The bills specifically prohibit harassment that takes place in cyberspace "through the use of data or computer software that is accessed at a nonschool-related location, activity function or program," but creates a hostile environment at school. That means principals would have to intervene in some cases that originate outside of school.

Parents, by and large, are supportive of the measure.

"A school is a place of learning," said Jay Jefferson, president of the PTSA at Carver Middle School in Miami. "We must have policies and regulations that speak to maintaining a child's well-being."

But Harris, whose Panhandle Area Educational Consortium represents 13 school districts, said the issue is far more complex.

Current case law, Harris said, allows principals to punish students for bullying that takes place inside a school, but is ambiguous when it happens somewhere else.

Harris believes principals would be overstepping their legal authority by punishing students for off-campus activity.

"There is not a Supreme Court decision that says (a) school (has) the authority to go off campus and control that off-campus conduct," he said.

There are also First Amendment questions.

Students have a limited right to free speech when they are in the classroom. But Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., says teenagers have expanded rights when they communicate with people outside of the school setting.

"When you speak in school, you are with a captive audience," LoMonte said. "When you are on Twitter, nobody is forced to read that. If they find it provocative or offensive, they can just look away."

Florida lawmakers have acknowledged the potential fault lines during recent committee meetings in Tallahassee. But there is a general consensus that cyberbullying needs to be addressed this session.

Lawmakers say they plan to tinker with the bill language until the legal questions are resolved.

"At the end of the day, if we don't pass something, we are going to have more problems in our schools and our principals are not going to have the tools that they need to keep a safe environment," said Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity.

Said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat: "This is something that we have to address. We don't have a choice."

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