A new law criminalizing online student speech went into effect in North Carolina on Saturday. Known as the 2012 School Violence Prevention Act (who doesn’t want to prevent violence?), the law criminalizes student-on-teacher cyberbullying, meaning that public school students who use computers with the “intent to intimidate or torment” school employees will now be guilty of a class 2 misdemeanor — the equivalent of a simple assault or resisting arrest charge which is punishable by up to 60 days in jail or a $1,000 fine. The law would make even the truth illegal since it prohibits online statements “whether true or false, intending to immediately provoke, and that is likely to provoke, any third party to stalk or harass a school employee.”
The problem here is that the terms “intimidate” and “torment” are not defined and essentially leave it up to the school employee to determine whether or not the speech was criminal. It in effect creates a text book example of the heckler’s veto. As written, it serves little more purpose than to protect government officials from criticism by chilling free speech.
Consider the fact that it would criminalize such things as:
- A student objecting to a decision by school officials on his personal Facebook page
- A student in a chat room stating that they don’t like a particular teacher
- A student posting a complaint about offensive comments made by a teacher in class
- A student making an accurate and truthful comment on Facebook that exposes a teacher who is having an inappropriate relationship with another student.
“This law is so vague that it could easily result in a student being arrested simply for posting something on the Internet that a school official finds offensive,” said ACLU-NC Policy Director Sarah Preston.
It is another example of law makers passing a well-intentioned yet poorly written law in the hopes of appearing to be effective in the fight against cyberbullying. Does the cyberbullying of school employees occur? Without a doubt. Is this law, as it is written, the proper response to protect against such acts? No way.