A Student's Right to Be Cyber-Mean

Beverly Vista student wins cyberbullying case before federal court

By John Adams
|  Monday, Dec 14, 2009  |  Updated 11:56 AM PDT
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Cyberbullying still a problem for school officials to determine and discipline.

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A ruling by a federal judge in Los Angeles is causing more gray areas for school officials and students alike. U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson ruled in favor of a Beverly Vista School student in a cyberbulling case and found that the school overstepped its boundaries by suspending the student based on a YouTube video she posted about a fellow student.

The day after the video was posted to YouTube, the student whom the video was about refused to go to class, embarassed by the video, which had already circulated among classmates. The student went to the guidance counselor and explained the situation, according to an article in The Los Angeles Times:

She was upset and humiliated and couldn't possibly go to class, the girl told the counselor. The night before, a classmate had posted a video on YouTube with a group of other eighth-graders bad-mouthing her, calling her "spoiled," a "brat" and a "slut." Text and instant messages had been flying since. Half the class must have seen it by now, she told Hart.
Hart took the problem to the vice principal and principal, who took it to a district administrator, who asked the district's lawyers what they could do about it. In the end, citing "cyberbullying" concerns, school officials suspended the girl who posted the video for two days. That student took the case to federal court, saying her free speech rights had been violated.

This lawsuit came on the heels of recent cases, most notably a case in Missouri where a girl committed suicide after being cyberbullied. 

Earlier in December, three students from A.E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas were arrested for attacking red-haired students as a way of participating in "Kick a Ginger Day." However, as easy as it is to identify physical bullying, the struggle continues to be when are the school officials required to step in and intervene, and when is it the parents job.

Judge Wilson wrote in his opinion of the Beverly Hills student's case:

"The court cannot uphold school discipline of student speech simply because young persons are unpredictable or immature, or because, in general, teenagers are emotionally fragile and may often fight over hurtful comments."

Congress is currently reviewing a bill that would make cyberbullying punishable by up to two years in prison, though defining what is and what isn't cyberbulling remains unclear. One thing that is clear: free speech activist will contend that the 1st Amendment protects all types of speech, including mean and hurtful speech.

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