A recent cyberbullying law in Albany County, New York was struck down by the state’s highest court. Why did this happen? Because it violated First Amendment rights. The statute outlawed “annoying communication”, which the court found to be far too broad, and can criminalize a vast spectrum of speech that falls outside the popular understanding of cyberbullying. Because of this, the entire law had to be thrown out.
A fault in the Albany County Legislature is that it expanded a once narrow restriction into a new censorship regimen that could send teenagers to jail for making jokes on social media sites. Most of the time, statutes are thrown out and rewritten to protect those in need without prosecuting a huge number of people. However, cyberbullying is so new that it is difficult to determine how exactly to outlaw it without being unconstitutional.
About 20 states currently have laws in their books that are directly targeted toward cyberbullying, and several more may follow. The strongest of the statutes mostly avoid censorship by granting schools the authority to address and discipline students who make online threats toward other students. Other cyberbullying laws are extensions of stalking and harassment laws that apply to the Internet.
The main problem with cyberbullying laws is the issue of trying not to violate the First Amendment. Maryland had the most effective cyberbullying law so far; it prohibits the use of a computer in a manner that will inflict “serious emotional distress”. The law does make an exception for expressing political views, and conveying information, but it wasn’t enough to justify the statute for the ACLU. It was seen as an effort to “criminalize speech”.
The vast openness of the internet is making lawmakers reevaluate what is an acceptable balance between speech, privacy, expression, and seclusion. There is no doubt that cyberbullying laws are a vital tool in curbing the emotional distress inflicted on victims that can be avoided. A good example of cyberbullying statues is in Louisiana, where they built their laws around traditional harassment laws, and avoided making annoying and offensive speech criminalized. Young people are known for saying slanderous, offensive things, and the need to find a balance between them being young and when to persecute is vital when protecting them victims of cyberbullying.