Cyberbullying is no doubt one of the biggest issues facing teachers, counselors, parents and students today. As research continues to surface about the horribly detrimental effects that bullying has on long-term mental health, the crackdown on those who misuse power and bully others at school has become more severe than ever, and rightly so. But what recourse (if any) does a school have when the bullying takes place outside of school via the internet? Three recent cases have gone through the courts and will be heard by the Supreme Court as soon as this week. At stake: free speech versus protection from bullying.
CASE 1: The “Hairy Sex-Addict”
James McGonigle is a married father. He is also the principle of Blue Mountain Middle School located in rural Orwigsburg, PA. When an girl in the 8th gradeposted photos of him online from her home that called him a “hairy sex-addict” as well as a “pervert” who would “hit on students” he imposed a 10-day suspension. Her parents sued in federal court on the basis that communication that originates from the home is protected by the First Amendment.
The MySpace profile, which also mocked McGonigle’s wife and children was brought to his attention by fellow teachers and other students who found the content disturbing, which led to the girl’s suspension. The first trial was ruled in favor of McGonligle and the school. With the help of the ACLU, however, the parents of the girl were able to win in the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. The judge ruled that the off-campus origin of the posting “caused no substantial disruption” in school and that to impose a penalty on the girl is paramount to “dangerously broad censorship” of students. The case is now moving on to the Supreme Court. Should the school lose there, the girl and her parents will be paid restitution and the district will have to reimburse the ACLU lawyer.
CASE 2: The Mock MySpace
In a similar case in western Pennsylvania’s Hermitage School District, a 17-year-old male student created a mock MySpace page featuring the principal of Hickory High School, Eric Trosch. The fake profile listed “transgender” as one of the principal’s interests as well as “Appreciators of Alcoholic Beverages” and a membership to “Steroids International Club.”
In a similar ruling, the 3rd Circuit Court upheld the student’s right to post the material outside of school, even though it was accessed by others on school grounds. The 10 day suspension and school transfer. Though other students created similar profiles after viewing the first, only this boy was punished. The judge ruling the case explained that, “We have found no authority that would support punishment for creating such a profile unless it results in foreseeable and substantial disruption of school.”
CASE 3: The “Slut” with Herpes
The final case, from West Virginia ended a bit differently. When high school senior Kara Kowalski created a fake profile of another student which claimed she was a “slut who had herpes,” school officials suspended her on the grounds that she created a “hate website.” According to the school’s anti-bullying and harassment policy, Kowalski would be punished, but her parents disagree and sued in federal court.
Unlike the cases against the two principals, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the school, claiming that Kowalski “used the Internet to orchestrate a targeted attack on a classmate,” which was beyond her rights to free speech.
The Case for Cyberbullying
Thus far, the Supreme Court has refused to weigh in on these cases despite their presence on the docket since the summer. As it stands, the issue of cyberbullying only appears to be getting worse. More students have access to the internet at home and seeing a lack of consequences makes the actions all the more appealing to would-be bullies. Educators are stuck between a rock and a hard place trying to decide where they can intervene without violating free speech, even when they are the victims themselves. This makes the need for comprehensive national legislation against the ills of bullying all the more necessary, but at the same time all the more elusive.