Point of View

A bad new law targets N.C. students

December 3, 2012 

As of now, public school students in North Carolina officially have their free speech rights restricted – at least when it comes to talking about their teachers and other school officials online.

Under a misguided state law that went into effect Dec. 1, students who use computers with the “intent to intimidate or torment” school employees could be arrested and, in some cases, punished by up to 60 days in jail or a $1,000 fine.

Many states have passed measures in recent years to protect students from bullying, but North Carolina’s 2012 School Violence Prevention Act is the first in the country aimed at preventing students from “cyberbullying” school employees – and the first to impose criminal sanctions and potentially lifelong consequences on violators.

This law may seem well-intentioned. Bullying is indeed a problem in schools and shouldn’t have to be endured by anyone, students or teachers alike. But the language in this law is so vague, and its punishments so severe, that it not only attacks students’ basic constitutional right to free speech but also could lead to a student being arrested simply for posting comments online that a school official finds offensive – even if those comments are factually true statements.

For starters, it is unclear what types of speech will be punished under the law. The terms “intimidate” and “torment” have never been fully defined in state law.

To make matters worse, the law would even criminalize students for posting online facts that are true. The law prohibits any statement “whether true or false, intending to immediately provoke, and that is likely to provoke, any third party to stalk or harass a school employee.”

Consider this scenario: A student posts a factually accurate comment on Facebook complaining about offensive comments a teacher made in front of several students. Would that original Facebook comment be considered “intimidating” or “tormenting”? Does the student who simply reported what the teacher said deserve to be arrested?

What if students post on a message board that they are “tired” of a particular teacher? Or if they use Twitter to voice their disagreement with a decision made by a certain school official? Are those now criminal acts? The law is not clear.

In North Carolina, 16- and 17-year-olds – many of them high school juniors and seniors – are charged criminally as adults and would therefore face actual jail time under this law. But as we all know, maturing young students often say or post things online without fully understanding their consequences. North Carolina should not be branding students with a criminal record because they made one perhaps thoughtless comment on Facebook or Twitter.

There is a greater concern at issue here, beyond this new law’s immediate consequences. At the American Civil Liberties Union, we often talk about the importance of every American’s First Amendment right to free speech. It’s important to remember that if we allow the government to take away someone else’s rights, it can just as easily take away yours.

Criminalizing student speech – of any kind – is a slippery slope that establishes a very bad precedent. Young people should not be taught that they will be punished for telling the truth, speaking freely or questioning authority. If the government can criminalize students who criticize teachers online, what is to stop the government from making it illegal for any one of us to criticize some other government official, like a city council member or state legislator, whether the comments are made online or not?

The “teaching cyberbullying” provision of the 2012 School Violence Prevention Act is wrong for our state, our schools and our students. Lawmakers should repeal it as soon as possible to avoid causing unintended harm to this and future generations of students.

Sarah Preston is policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.

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