Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying generally encompasses any kind of harassing or bullying conduct that occurs through electronic communication channels or devices, including e-mail, Web pages, blogs, online video sharing sites, social networking services, cell phones, and camcorders. Cyberbullying is a fairly recent educational and legal concern and is fueled by the everincreasing affordability and ease-of-use of digital technologies. This entry describes the behavior and some policy guidelines.

Challenges

Cyberbullying can take many forms. For example, a harassing message can be transmitted as a blog post, cell phone text message, or Web page comment. Similarly, bullying behavior can occur as mocking videos, pictures with denigrating captions, hurtful user-created cartoons or animations, and so on. The very tools that empower numerous legitimate uses also enable harassing behaviors.

One of the biggest challenges facing educators who are trying to address cyberbullying issues is the difficulty of monitoring all of the various communication methods that are available to students and employees. Shutting down a Web page or blog is not a viable solution when individuals can easily repost offending material on an infinite variety of free Web site or blog hosts. Tracking down an anonymous email could require a court order and still might result in failure. Even finding harassing or bullying content within the vast ocean of online material can be quite difficult; educators typically learn about hurtful messages from victims or other students and employees.

The ability of individuals to anonymously send or post material online is another challenge for educators. For example, if a student receives a harassing text message on her cell phone from an anonymous antagonist, it can be nearly impossible to track down the offender. Similarly, Internet service providers and online companies often provide individuals with the ability to either keep their identities secret or to create alternative, false identities. Cracking the veil of anonymity poses significant difficulties for educators attempting to address cyberbullying issues.

Policy Guidelines

Educators who are working to reduce cyberbullying incidents must remember several key principles. The first is that school organizations have an affirmative obligation to protect students and staff from harassing or bullying conduct. Employees and students have the legally enforceable right to be free from hostile working and learning environments. Second, school officials must remember that the default rule is that student speech is protected, at least in public schools. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Supreme Court first noted that students do not give up their constitutional rights simply because they attend school. Teachers and administrators should never operate from the initial assumption that student speech is unprotected. One notable exception to this rule is that true threats are never protected.

Any type of electronic communication that threatens, or reasonably appears to threaten, to cause severe harm should fall under this exception and can be easily regulated by schools. Educators should be careful, however, to distinguish between true threats and insincere statements that pose little to no risk of actual harm. Other exceptions to the general rule include student speech that materially and substantially disrupts the school environment, is vulgar, or advocates illegal drug use.

Third, cyberbullying that occurs using schoolowned equipment or technology systems is usually easy to regulate. Courts have upheld the right of public schools to regulate speech because of legitimate pedagogical concerns about school endorsement or sponsorship. Courts also have upheld the right of schools to search their own property, whether it be an e-mail system or a student locker. School organizations should have strong acceptable use policies (AUPs) for both students and employees that outlines the rights and responsibilities associated with using district technological equipment. Consequences for violating the AUP also should be spelled out fairly explicitly. Legal enforcement of an AUP can be strengthened by having students and staff affirmatively sign each year that they have read and understood the document.

Fourth, educators must realize that cyberbullying that occurs off-campus using hardware or software that is not owned by the school organization may be quite difficult to regulate. In these instances, public school educators should tread carefully before attempting to discipline students for cyberspeech that occurs off school grounds. Only a few judicial opinions have dealt with school discipline for public school students’ harassing, bullying, or insulting off-campus cyberspeech, and the vast majority have ruled against the schools. In these cases, courts have vigorously tended to protect students’ First Amendment rights to express themselves absent a material and substantial disruption to the school learning environment. Insults, negative commentary, hurtful statements, degrading pictures, and contrarian viewpoints all have been found to fall within the protections of the First Amendment. Unless they can show a very significant impact on the school environment, school officials would be better served to substitute education, counseling, and informing victims of their private legal rights for school disciplinary procedures.

Finally, officials in public schools always have greater leeway to regulate employees’ off-campus cyberspeech, because staff members are “agents” of their boards. Cyberspeech that is protected for students may not be protected for employees. Past court cases have ruled that employee speech is protected only if it is on a matter of legitimate public concern and is not outweighed by the school organization’s responsibility to manage its internal affairs and to provide effective and efficient service to the public.

Cyberbullying issues still are relatively new, and future court cases will further delineate educators’ ability to regulate bullying or harassing cyberspeech. Insofar as so much legal uncertainty still exists on this topic, school systems must ensure that ongoing training of administrators and teachers is an important component of their professional development efforts.

Scott McLeod

See also Antiharassment Policies; Bullying; First Amendment; Free Speech and Expression Rights of Students; Sexual Harassment; Teacher Rights; Technology and the Law; Web Sites, Student

Further Readings

  • McLeod, S. (2007, March). Administrator’s guide to cyberbullying. Retrieved June 1, 2007 from http:// www.dangerouslyirrelevant.org/2007/03/administrators_.html
  • Willard, N. E. (2007). Cyberbullying and cyberthreats: Responding to the challenge of online social aggression, threats, and distress. Eugene, OR: Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. 

Legal Citations