July 6, 2014    /    by

Where Next After Cyberbullying Law Struck Down?

As global online harassment concerns rise, workable solutions seem elusive.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/oliveromg

What can be done to stop cyberbullying? Not just for kids, but for adults too?

How far can legislation go that criminalizes online communication which is intended to "harass, annoy, threaten, abuse, taunt, intimidate, torment, humiliate, or otherwise inflict significant emotional harm on another person," for no legitimate purpose? When is free-speech violated online?

Or, how should courts deal with children harassing other children in cyberspace?

Our nation was given important near-term answers to several of these questions last week in Albany, New York, when a 2010 Albany County cyberbullying law was stuck down. According to the Wall Street Journal:

New York's top court struck down a law that made cyberbullying a crime, in what had been viewed as a test case of recent state and local statutes that target online speech.

The New York Court of Appeals, in a 5-2 ruling, held on Tuesday that the 2010 Albany County law prohibited a vast swath of speech "far beyond the cyberbullying of children," in violation of the First Amendment. ...

Judge Victoria Graffeo, writing for the majority, described the posts as "repulsive and harmful" but declined the county's request to uphold the law in a form that would have barred narrow categories of electronic communications, including sexually explicit photographs and private or personal sexual information, sent with the intent to harm.

Cyberbullying challenges still growing

One thing is clear: Cyberbullying is a growing problem around the world. Recent stories from Australia to Missouri make it obvious that existing measures against cyberbullying are not enough. Parents are very concerned about this growing trend.

In fact, a McAfee report titled, 2014 Teens and the Screen study: Exploring Online Privacy, Social Networking and Cyberbullying, claims that cyberbullying has recently tripled:

Despite significant efforts to discourage cyberbullying, and its negative effects, the number of occurrences continues to grow with 87% of youth having witnessed cyberbullying. Of those who responded they were cyberbullied, 72% responded it was due to appearance while 26% answered due to race or religion and 22% stated their sexuality was the driving factor. Of those who witnessed cyberbullying, 53% responded the victims became defensive or angry while 47% said the victims deleted their social media accounts, underscoring its significant emotional impact. While the study reveals cyberbullying continues to represent a serious problem for youth, the 2014 survey found 24% of youth would not know what to do if they were harassed or bullied online.

And another study by Michigan State University (MSU) suggests that cyberbullying is affecting the rich and poor alike:

The study suggests the "digital divide" -- the gap between people with access to online technologies and those without -- may be nonexistent, at least when it comes to cyberbullying, said Thomas J. Holt, MSU associate professor of criminal justice.

New laws please?

With the growth of cyberbullying has come the desire to punish those who harm others.

The Cyberbullying Research Center offers specific information on state sexting and cyberbullying laws.  The center also addresses topics like unfunded mandates to end cyberbullying as well as school policies that relate to cyberbullying.

Back in 2011 and 2012, there were calls for more state legislation on cyberbullying, after several cases reached the national headlines, including the story of a Rutgers freshman who committed suicide after being the victim of cyberbullying.

Another well-known cyberbullying case includes this Florida story from 2013. You can watch an ABC News report on that case in this YouTube video:

This coverage has led to global calls for more legislative action. In Australia, a petition was written to gain grass-roots support for new laws.

BBC reported that in Wales, United Kingdom, there are currently no specific laws to address cyberbullying, but new legislation may be coming.

Under UK legislation there is not a specific law which makes cyberbullying illegal, although it can be considered a criminal offence under legislation such as the Protection from Harassment Act and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act.

Mr Towler said he believed legislation specifically to deal with cyberbullying was now needed.

And in the U.S., there is no doubt that more focused laws will now be needed after this recent N.Y. court ruling. Headlines like this one that proclaim that: Cyberbullys get green light in New York to make your life hell.

Essentially, the ruling means that virtual harassment, intimidation, and worse are now protected free speech, despite the fact that some young teens have killed themselves because of such taunts in the U.S. The anti-cyberbullying laws in 12 other states are still intact, so there’s hope.

What is unclear is where free-speech stops and online harassment begins. This ruling makes it more likely that laws will need to be very specific regarding actions in order to be upheld by the courts going forward.

Are there non-legal answers?

All sides agree that better awareness of the harm that can be caused by cyberbullying is the best place to start for educating both parents and children. I recommend visiting Nobullying.com and reading their stories and advice. 

Other helpful websites that address cyberbullying include:

Stopcyberbullying.org, Stopbullying.gov and the National Crime Prevention Council portal.

We seem to be at a crossroad. Like guns in schools or other difficult cultural issues, there is currently no consensus on how to deal with cyberbullying in the near future.

And yes, the New York Supreme Court has just muddied the cyberbullying legal water a bit more by overruling a key state law related to online conduct.

What are your thoughts on addressing cyberbullying trends?