Cyberbullying bills win support, raise legal questions

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMarch 21, 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 this week won the support of second House committee -- 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.

"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.

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 schoolhouse 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.

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