Civil Liberties

Stop Cyberbullying Your Masters!


As further evidence that "cyberbullying" (with cyber-stalking close behind) has become the "disorderly conduct" of the online world—an all-purpose legal bludgeon with which to thump people in the kidneys when the authorities don't like what they're doing but can't find a real crime about which to complain—three San Francisco high school seniors were suspended for saying mean things about their teachers in Tumblr posts. They were reinstated only after civil liberties groups stepped in to remind school officials that there are actual limits to their power, and lawyers with pro bono time on their hands willing to make those limits stick. According to the ACLU of Northern California:

In March, after students at a San Francisco high school posted parodies and irreverent memes from their home computers about teachers and school administrators on a Tumblr blog ("Teaches Pink Floyd for 3 Weeks; Makes Final Project Due In 3 Days"; "Nags Student Govt About Being On Task; Lags On Everything"), the principal dragged three students she suspected of creating the blog posts into her office and interrogated them at length.  (The blog has since been taken down.)  The principal then immediately suspended the students for three days, accusing them of bullying and disrupting school activities.  The students were also barred from attending a school dance and prom, and even from walking with their classmates at graduation.  In addition, the principal did not provide the students with an opportunity to resolve the concerns through a restorative justice approach prior to imposing the punishments, which disregards the School District's prioritization of restorative justice as an alternative, when possible, to suspension and expulsion.

Note that, as almost always seems to be the case in these electron-fueled days, the kids didn't even use school time or resources. They logged into their Tumblr accounts at home, after hours. Amateurs. In my day, we circulated obscene newsletters in class after running them off on school mimeograph machines.

"We absolutely recognize and value our students' right to free speech. We also recognize that we need to educate them about responsible speech," Gentle Blythe, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Unified School District, told California Watch. "As soon as the district was notified of the school administration's action, we responded. Part of having authority means recognizing that if you make a mistake you need to correct it."

And a big part of having authority is backpedaling when the ACLU and the Asian Law Caucus come calling. With the school district under scrutiny, the George Washington High School students were reinstated after missing three oh-so-important days of school.

Ever a state to run with the cool kids, California has a specific law giving school officials the power to deal with the dread scourge of cyberbullying—though it doesn't specify that the target of the bullying must be those delicate flowers employed by the education establishment.

Update: While we're discussing delicate flowers, let's have a shout-out for the tough Renton, Washington, police officials who got their knickers in a bind over mocking online videos created by some of their own.