“Cyberbullying involves the use of information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behaviour by an individual or group, that is intended to harm others.” Bill Belsey
Thanks to the rise of social networking sites, “cyberbullying” has become a prevalent form of bullying in 21st century American culture. The anonymity achievable with cyberbullying has allowed bullying to flourish in this realm of technology. No longer does a bully have to be the toughest kid on the playground, rather bullies more often are faceless entities who are difficult to track and even more difficult to punish. Consequently, this difficulty paired with the media attention cyberbullying has recently received causes many Americans to question if it is time for the law to put an end to cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying in the Media
With the tragic deaths of cyberbully victims such as Megan Meiers, Tyler Clementi, and Phoebe Prince, cyberbullying has received vast amounts of media attention. Examples of this media attention include:
1.) News stories by prominent networks and newspapers concerning cyberbullying and prevention including this article from CNN entitled “How to Protect your Child from Online Bullies.”
2.) The partnership of ABC Family and Seventeen magazine in the “Delete Digital Drama” campaign along with ABC Family’s release of the original film entitled “Cyberbully” to help create awareness of online bullying.
- The Delete Digital Drama campaign gained 80,000 plus supporters whom added the campaign badge to their Facebook and Twitter profile pics in order to create online awareness and solidarity against cyberbullies.
- The film, “Cyberbully,” tells the story of a 17 year-old girl who is the victim of cyberbullies. The character reaches a low when she attempts to commit suicide; however, with the help of her friends and family she realizes she is not alone as a victim. The film ends with her mother taking on the school system and state legislature to create regulations preventing the same ordeal from happening to other teens.
3.) A grassroots effort aimed at raising awareness about cyberbullying with the “National Day of Cyberbully Awareness.”
4.) The establishment of the Cyberbullying Research Center and their publications on cyberbullying.
- In the publication “Cyberbullying Research Summary: Cyberbullying and Suicide” by Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D. and Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D. from the Cyberbullying Research Center, Hinduja and Patchin found that “cyberbullying victims were almost twice as likely to have attempted suicide compared to youth who had not experienced cyberbullying.”
- Based on their results, Hinduja and Patchin suggested that not only should adults monitor the online and offline interactions of children, but also that a “suicide prevention and intervention” aspect should be included in the bully response programs of schools.
These are just a few of the many responses against cyberbullying in the United States, and these numerous examples show that Americans are very much concerned with the threat of cyberbullying, especially in the case of children. Within these examples alone, we see two main solution types arise: social vs. law. Solutions which involve social pressure include parental or school intervention and grassroots efforts to create a social awareness of and taboo against cyberbullying. On the other hand, the ABC Family film “Cyberbully” ended with a call for legislation against cyberbullying. However, of these two solutions, social vs. law, what is the best way to combat this new online phenomenon?
Cyberbullying and the Government
When considering legal cases of defamation one law is important to consider: section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA).
SECTION 230 OF THE CDA:
Under section 230 of the CDA, online publishers of “interactive computer services” are not liable for information provided on their sites. Publishers may include third-party website operators such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. as established in the case Batzel v. Cremers in which immunity from liability was upheld for a website operator in a defamation case. A publisher may also be an individual user who is distributing defaming information, but was not the original provider of the content as seen in Barrett v. Rosenthal.
Section 230 has two goals. First, by providing immunity for online publishers, section 230 aims to encourage third-party websites to censor information provided on their sites. Prior to section 230, if a website participated in any sort of censoring they could be found liable for defamation, thus most sites did not censor their interactive content to avoid this liability. With section 230, sites have the option to participate in any level of censorship of interactive content without worrying about later legal troubles. The second goal of section 230 is to protect children from obscene material online without placing more stringent rules on the free speech of the internet.
SECTION 230 AND CYBERBULLYING:
Due to section 230 of the CDA, in cases of cyberbullying, legal cases against the social networking sites cannot be upheld. Thus, in the case of Megan Meiers, who was harassed by a mother masquerading as a 16 year-old boy on Myspace, Meiers’ parents could not sue Myspace for allowing the harassment to occur. Consequently, any legal regulations in the attempt to prevent cyberbullying must be against the cyberbully or the provider of the defaming content.
The case Doe v. Ciolli involved the cyberbullying of two, female Yale law students. Doe I and Doe II were being harassed by John Doe 21 on an internet discussion board called AutoAdmit. John Doe 21 posted nearly 200 defamatory messages about the two law students including “Alex, Atkind, Stephen Reynolds, [Doe II], and me: GAY LOVERS” and “Women named Jill and Doe II should be raped.” Doe I and II eventually issued a subpoena duces tecum to AT&T to learn the identity of the person assigned to the IP address which was posting the defamatory messages. However, in response, John Doe 21 motioned to quash the subpoena and proceed anonymously. Both of his requests were denied by the court in this case. The motion to quash the subpoena was denied based on the plaintiff’s evidence for a prima facie case for libel which outweighed John Doe 21’s First Amendment right to speak anonymously. Additionally, John Doe 21 was denied his request to proceed anonymously because he did not prove the special harms necessary and only aimed to continue anonymously based on “social stigma, embarrassment, and economic harm.”
Thus, based on this case, victims of cyberbullying can use the legal system to learn the identity of their online harasser if they can prove a prima facie case for libel and the defendant cannot prove the special harms necessary to proceed anonymously.
In D.C. v. R.R. a 15 year-old high school student, the plaintiff D.C., was receiving threatening messages from cyberbullies on his website. D.C.’s website aimed to help him pursue a career in music and the entertainment industry. D.C. and his parents sued six of the students who posted the harassing messages “alleging a statutory claim under California’s hate crimes laws.” In response, R.R. and his parents filed a special anti-SLAPP motion to strike the claim.
R.R.’s post on D.C.’s website included threatening messages (“I’m…going to pound your head in with an ice pick”) and crude accusations of the plaintiff being homosexual. The court denied the defendant’s anti-SLAPP motion because threatening messages and death threats are not considered protected speech under the First Amendment. Also, the defendant admitted that the message was meant to be a “joke” and thus the speech did not concern a “public issue” which is necessary under the anti-SLAPP statute.
Based on this court case, families can bring claims against cyberbullies if they can prove the speech is threatening enough to not be protected by the First Amendment.
CURRENT STATE LAWS AND CYBERBULLYING
Some states have already enacted state laws in order to combat cyberbullying. These states include Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, New Jersey, Oregon, Missouri, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont and a description of these current laws can be viewed here.
While there are examples of the use of legal regulation in response to cyberbullying, we must ask ourselves if this is truly the best solution to the problem.
Cyberbullying and Social Regulations:
If every case of cyberbullying was solved using legislation, the system would soon find itself losing precious time and resources fighting a never-ending battle. Bullying occurs often, and victims frequently want to see quick, direct punishments as solutions, but not everyone can afford to sue their harasser, nor do most people want to suffer through a long legal process.
In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Paul Butler argued that we do not need to create more criminal laws in response to cyberbullying. Rather, if a cyberbully breaks a current law and “crosses the line between freedom of speech, and invasion of privacy, or harassment” then he should be charged. Butler’s argument supports the court cases we saw above concerning cyberbullying. In all of those cases, the cyberbullies had broken a criminal law, and thus the case could be taken to court. Anything short of this should be regulated and solved on a more social, local level.
Again, as we saw above in the media attention to cyberbullying, grassroots efforts in order to raise awareness of cyberbullying and thus create programs within schools or communities to prevent cyberbullying are the best solution. If a child was bullied extensively on the playground we would respond with social rather than legal intervention, so why would we respond any differently to bullying in cyberspace?