On Friday, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill (AB 746) that would allow schools to suspend students who use social networking sites to bully other students. The bill is an extension of existing bullying laws dating back to 1996, long before social networking existed.
The bill was introduced by Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D-San Jose), a former member of the San Jose City Council. It gives schools the right to suspend students who engage in cyber-bullying.
There is no question that cyber-bullying is pervasive. As far back as 2006, a Harris Interactive poll reported that 43 percent of all U.S. high school students experienced cyber-bullying in one form or other over the past year. It should be noted that it was only in September of that year that Facebook, the largest social networking site, was opened to all students over the age of 13. In other words, that 43 percent figure predates one of the most important milestones in the spread of social networking.
The phenomenon has increased since then. According to i-Safe, a company that specializes in internet safety programs and curricula, some 50 percent of adolescents and teens have been cyber-bullied, half of them repeatedly, while over one-third of all people in this age range have received cyber-threats. The report also says that 50 percent of adolescents and teens have not only been victims of cyber-bullying. Girls, they say, are more likely to be involved than boys.
Campos’s bill received the backing of the California State PTA and the California Teachers Association. It has, however, raised some eyebrows too. In a commentary that appeared on Yahoo, indie author Sevastian Winters questions whether this allows schools to overstep their jurisdiction by policing what students do on their computers or with their phones when they are not in school. Winters admits that, “Absolutely, kids need to be held accountable when the things they say and do negatively affect the lives of others.” But, he suggests that this should remain the responsibility of parents and law enforcement, rather than schools.
Even anti-cyber-bullying groups recognize this as a problem. Stopcyberbullying.org notes, “Sometime the schools over-reach in their policy, attempting to prohibit speech too broadly,” and that this could be challenged in court under constitutional and procedural grounds. The group adds, however, that in most instances cyber-bullying among teenage peers is usually disruptive of school activities and discipline.
Campos’s bill, now a law, may extend the legal definition of cyber-bullying to include derogatory or defamatory comments on Facebook and other sites. But unless schools can prove that these comments are having a direct impact on school life, it could face legal challenges.