Feb. 3 2013
Bill targets cyberbullies
Opponents claim law violates students’ free speech rights
Opponents claim law violates students’ free speech rights
See it in print.
Facebook is one of the world’s most well-known websites, but Oakland High School Principal Clare Lutgen knows it by a different name: “Things I would never say to your face”- book.
Lutgen is talking about cyberbullying, a growing problem across the country and the target of Indiana House Bill 1015. The bill takes aim at cyberbullies by allowing school administrators to punish students for out-of-school activities that interfere with school purposesor educational function.
“Students say horrible things to each other on Facebook that they would never, ever say in person,” Lutgen said. “And then students come to school upset and embarrassed. It doesn’t matter where it originated, it’s disrupting their ability to learn.”
As the law stands now, schools can discipline students for “unlawful” out-of-school activities against other students or teachers. HB 1015 would broaden that to any “delinquent, criminal or tortious” act.
Supporters of the bill say it would provide school administrators with the legal support they need to properly discipline online bullies. The bill’s critics argue that it is a violation of students’ First Amendment rights and a burden to already-busy teachers and principals.
HB 1015’s purpose
State Rep. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, authored HB 1015 in response to feedback from the Indiana School Board Association. In 2012, he co-authored a similar bill, but it did not pass the Senate because of complaints that it was too broad.
Koch said the new bill’s focus is narrower but would achieve the same goal.
“Our existing laws were written before to- day’s technology existed,” Koch said. “The laws are no longer adequate to allow administrators to handle the cyberbullying is- sue.”
By giving the school permission to punish for acts that are “tortious,” students can be disciplined for defamation, or intentionally saying something false about a person to harm his or her reputation.
The bill also allows students to be penalized for “juvenile” acts. Indiana University law professor Daniel Conkle said since the word juvenile is not specifically defined in Indiana law, administrators would have more leeway to determine what to punish someone for.
Indiana already has a cyberbullying law, but it is limited. It makes it illegal to harass another per- son using a computer net- work or other form of electronic communication. But the communication must be “with a per- son” or transmitted to the person through an “obscene message.”
Not all cyberbullying is committed through messages or directly to a person. One popular form of bullying seen in Greater Lafayette and around the country is through Facebook’s “pages” function.
A person can create a page anonymously. Usually the page is about one person or a group of people. The page can include text and photos to make fun of, harass or intimidate the victim. Other users can “like” the page and send messages, usually containing more ridiculing comments, to the page’s anonymous administrator, who then often posts the messages to the page for all to see.
Oakland dean of students Lindsey Martin said students and parents have been found to post on and administer such pages. The only way to stop the postings is to contact Facebook to take down the site, but Facebook will not identify the page creator.
In situations when cyberbullies can be identified, principals try to step in as much as they can.
HB 1015 would give administrators more legal power to interfere, in case their authority to do so was ever questioned in court.
Protecting the First Amendment
Koch’s 2012 bill did not pass largely because opponents believed it limit- ed students’ First Amendment right to free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana called it an off-campus “overreach.”
The worry is that principals will use their power to punish students for posting or doing things that are constitutionally protected.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said HB 1015 is an improvement but still is too vague. LoMonte worked with a number of Indiana organizations to testify against Koch’s first bill.
“If a student wants to post ‘school is a horrible place,’ they could be punished,” LaMonte said. “Or, what if they are handing out condoms on the week- ends, and the school teaches abstinence? They could be punished for voicing any opinion contrary to the school’s position.”
LoMonte said HB 1015 not only invites censor- ship, it oversteps the boundaries of parental authority.
“If my kid is doing something the law allows him to do, and I don’t mind that he’s doing it, why should the school be able to stop him?”
A burden on principals?
Some local principals said they already deal with cyberbullying issues, and they don’t want more authority than they have.
Tippecanoe School Corp. Superintendent Scott Hanback said many situations arise in which disgruntled parents expect principals to get more involved in a conflict between two students.
“We want to protect our kids and keep them safe,” Hanback said. “But there is a boundary between what is a principal issue and what is a parent issue. We don’t want to get into the business of policing students’ home computers, especially if it is not spilling over to be- come an educational disruption.”
Neal McCutcheons, principal of Wainwright Middle School, said he and his staff don’t have the resources or time to investigate what students do on their home computers. He tries to remind parents to teach children how to act on the Internet.
“Get to know what they are doing and who they are talking to,” he said. “We should all promote safe Internet activity, because you never know who is on the other side.”