Cyberbullying and Bullying Used As Pretexts for Censorship

In the name of fighting “cyberbullying,” many New York legislators would like to force blogs to remove blog comments that offend readers, unless they “disclose information about the authorship of the supposedly offensive post including the writer’s name and home address.” As a law professor notes, the cost of doing that “might well be prohibitive for many Web site operators, whose only option at that point would be just to delete all the comments.”

On the bright side, the Tennessee legislature has belatedly heeded public criticism, and limited the state’s ban on posting images that “cause emotional distress” to comply with the First Amendment.

The U.S. Senate has passed restrictions on speech aimed at cyberbullying and “harassment” that UCLA School of Law’s Eugene Volokh has concluded violate the First Amendment, including an expansion of “stalking” provisions that were used unsuccessfully to prosecute a Twitter user who repeatedly criticized a religious leader. These provisions are contained in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2011, in a version of the bill that has passed the Senate but not the House. (I previously discussed that bill at this link.)

The Obama administration has sought to define “bullying” and “cyberbullying” to include constitutionally protected speech, such as harsh criticism of politicians, as I explained here. It also has sought to redefine various sorts of real or perceived “bullying” (and even protected speech) as a civil rights violation prohibited by the civil-rights statutes administered by the Department of Education, where I used to work. (Despite the panic over bullying, bullying has consistently gone down in the nation’s schools over the last few decades.)

Education Secretary Arne Duncan (whose agency has sought to micromanage school discipline by pressing for racial quotas) has equated “teasing” with “bullying.” But banning all teasing is harmful, according to psychologist Dacher Keltner, who noted in The New York Times that teasing is educational for children and teaches them “the wisdom of laughing at ourselves, and not taking the self too seriously.” Broad anti-bullying rules can backfire and have bad consequences for child development. As a school administrator noted after passage of New Jersey’s sweeping anti-bullying law, which contains 18 pages of required components, “The anti-bullying law also may not be appropriate for our youngest students, such as kindergartners who are just learning how to socialize with their peers. Previously, name-calling or shoving on the playground could be handled on the spot as a teachable moment, with the teacher reinforcing the appropriate behavior. That’s no longer the case. Now it has to be documented, reviewed and resolved by everyone from the teacher to the anti-bullying specialist, principal, superintendent and local board of education.”