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History of Cyberbullying Laws

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

In this lesson, we discuss bullying and cyberbullying. We then go over the history of cyberbullying laws as they relate to freedom of speech and school regulation.

What Is Bullying?

Not all that long ago, bullying was seen as being the physical or verbal abuse of a victim by the intimidator, the bully. With changing times and technologies, this definition is limited; though some overlap exists between bullying and cyberbullying. Bullying can now occur through cyberspace, and it may not involve any physical contact or spoken words between the bully and victim.

Cyberbullying, harassment that occurs through the internet, is different in some key respects. First, it allows a sense of distance to remain between the two parties, which may makes it easier for people to bully. Second, cyberbullying allows the abuser to remain anonymous. Both of these facts make it less likely for the abused to strike back. The small chance or repercussion also means a bully more likely to do crueler things.

As a result, the internet has allowed bullying to become more rampant. New laws had to be developed to address this threat. Let's go over a brief history of cyberbullying laws.

Early Beginnings

Laws regarding cyberbullying have been slow to develop. One important reason for this is the strong U.S. belief in the right to freedom of speech. Drawing a boundary between this notion and the rights of a cyberbullying victim has always been difficult in courtrooms.

Take, for example, an important freedom of speech case that involved students in the late 1960s, way before the days of cyberbullying. It was a case called Tinker v. Des Moines.

In short, students came to school wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. They were suspended by the school, and they sued the school in return. The students argued that their right to free speech had been impinged. The Supreme Court told the school to prove that they suspended the students because their act of expressing an opinion substantially interfered with school discipline or the rights of others. The school couldn't, and it lost the case.

This case was important because it established a precedent for what types of expressions could or couldn't be limited by public schools. In essence, where is the boundary between freedom of speech and inappropriate expression?

Recent Laws & Cases

Fast forward to 2000, and the world has changed for the case of J.S. v. Bethlehem Area School. The internet is in its infancy but starting to bloom. It's also one year after the tragic Columbine High School shooting. In this case, a student posted a page that ridiculed and threatened members of the school administration. Does this constitute freedom of speech?

The student was expelled and the case went to court. The U.S. Supreme Court, in short, stated that this was a disruption of the school environment, and the school's actions were justified in light of school violence. Thus, there was indeed a limit to freedom of expression.

As a result of this case and future ones like it, the federal government has essentially taken the stance that a school can, to some extent, regulate off-campus behavior. This includes cyberbullying. In other words, if the school reasonably believes that a student's internet-based actions are a disruption of the educational process or that they represent a threat, the school can take action.

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