Local parents want law against cyber bullying
By Teresa Auch Schultz firstname.lastname@example.org April 30, 2012 12:52PM
Parents Tim Tinsley and Regina Webb speak about the Facebook comments by several students against their 8th-grade daughter and others in Griffith, Ind. Thursday April 26, 2012. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
A recent issue with cyber bullying has several local parents saying it’s time to criminalize threatening words to help protect students.
But that, one local attorney says, gets into the tricky waters of protecting free speech rights and deciding whether the public wants to let the government go that far in policing what people say.
“It gets into the questions of whether the bullying is a form of speech,” Ivan Bodensteiner, a practicing attorney and professor of law at Valparaiso University who focuses on civil rights, said.
The issue was raised last week in Lake County when the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed a federal lawsuit against Griffith Public Schools for expelling three Griffith Middle School eighth grade girls earlier this semester for comments they posted to Facebook. The comments named several students the girls said they wanted to kill and how they would do so, such as putting a body in tub full of acid to get rid of any evidence.
The ACLU claimed in the suit that the girls were protected by freedom of speech and that no reasonable adult could take the postings seriously.
However, Regina Webb and Tim Tinsley, the parents of one of the students named, said they did take the postings seriously and alerted the school to them. Tinsley said he was happy the school took action but was upset when he was told by the Lake County Prosecutor’s office that charges would not be brought against the girls.
Tinsley said he considered the posts premeditation to murder. Webb said that if the law doesn’t provide for charges, it needs to be changed.
“They stated they did not violate any statute that would allow us to press charges against them, which I think is ridiculous,” Webb said. “I think that needs to be changed.”
Another parent whose child was also named in the post, Monica Hero, said she was shocked when she heard the ACLU had filed a lawsuit. She sees it as telling the girls they did nothing wrong instead of teaching them to accept responsibility.
“That is just common sense,” Hero said. “You can’t go to an airport and say ‘I’ve got a bomb.’”
Cari Adams, the founder and executive director of a Michigan City advocate group, Anti-Bullying Coalition, said she agrees with a push for a law. Her group recently worked with a case in the Michigan City Area Schools district in which someone made a Facebook group called “Let’s kill (name withheld).” The group included a picture of a specific student altered to show bullet wounds on him and a knife in his head, Adams said.
“I think that cyber bullying should be against the law,” she said. “I think it is so detrimental to children.”
Adams said she understands free speech is an issue but said it also shouldn’t be used as a “blanket” protection for threats and harassment.
“We are for free speech, but not at the cost of a child’s life,” she said.
It is hard to decide, though, she said, where the line is between free speech rights and bullying comments that need to be stopped.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled several times on free speech issues dealing with students, civil rights attorney Bodensteiner, who is not familiar with the details of the ACLU’s case, said. It has even found that several types of speech, such as intimidating speech or true threats, are not protected by the First Amendment. But those cases involve asking several questions, such as, is the threat imminent?
“I suppose the starting point is how does one interpret this speech?” he said.
For instance, he said, what if this situation dealt with a conversation between two adults and didn’t involve a school?
“Do we want government punishing our speech in that situation?” Bodensteiner said.
The advent of electronic communication, such as cell phones and the Internet, has muddled the question in recent years, especially when it comes to deciding what roles schools play, even in speech made away from school, he said.
He pointed out that Indiana does have a law dealing with bullying, and said most people can agree that bullying through physical violence “trumps the First Amendment.”
People are more cautious with bullying speech, however, because it’s harder to judge the harm.
“We all know bullying can be very harmful and for the target of bullying, it’s probably worse than a punch to the nose,” Bodensteiner said. “(But) at what point does it cross the line?”