North Carolina Passes Law Criminalizing Cyberbullying of Teachers

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 25, 2012

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Think back to your grade school years: most of us recall a bully or two, a class clown, or that one student who would talk back to a stern teacher from time to time. But most would agree that persistent bullying of a teacher was a very rare occasion; and if it did happen, the culprit would be far from anonymous. But those days are over.

Now, according to a survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and the Teacher Support Network, one in seven teachers have been cyber-bullied by their students. Cyberbullying, which is defined as “the use of information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior by an individual or group, that is intended to harm others,” has become ubiquitous in the Internet age – among students and directed at teachers.

Some states are now taking criminal action against this type of aggressive tormenting. North Carolina, for example, just passed the School Violence Protection Law of 2012, which makes cyberbullying a criminal misdemeanor. As part of the bill, teachers and school employees are specifically protected from online harassment.

The law makes it illegal for a student to use computer networks “with the intent to intimidate or torment a school employee; … to copy and disseminate, or cause to be made, an unauthorized copy of any data pertaining to a school employee; … sign up a school employee for a pornographic Internet site; … [or] sign up a school employee for electronic mailing lists or to receive junk electronic messages …”. The list goes on. Where past laws involving cyberbullying were aimed at student-to-student harassment based on protected statuses such as gender or sexual orientation, this new law zeros in on the problem of student-to-teacher intimidation—to whatever extend this may be defined.

Cyberbullying comes with a certain level of anonymity, which makes it difficult to police. But with a bill like North Carolina’s, school employees have an established avenue of recourse and can now report cyberbullying to local authorities, who can then take corrective measures.

It is the hope that more stringent consequences will curb the behavior. The crime is punishable by a Class 2 misdemeanor and a North Carolina student found guilty will likely be put on probation pursuant to what the court deems applicable, until an appropriate punishment is determined. Under the new law, students could be fined up to $1,000, or even face jail time.

In addition, “A student who is convicted under G.S. 14-458.2 of cyber-bullying a school employee shall be transferred to another school within the local school administrative unit.” If there is no such school, “the student shall be transferred to a different class or assigned to a teacher who was not involved as a victim of the cyber-bullying,” according to the law’s literature. 

One controversial element of any anti-cyberbullying law is the potential to blur the lines of free speech. Constitutionally, every person has the right to voice their opinion about others; and unlike some other countries, U.S.-based websites are not censored; and consequently, often riddled with heavy-minded comments and criticisms. So what is the defining line between protected speech and “tormenting” online? Some may argue the Internet is a free range for anyone to express themselves, and if it affects others, too bad—it’s a free country; whereas others might say that laws, or at least school policies, need be in place to address widespread and increasingly troublesome cyberbullying. There is still some contention on the subject.

As of now, there are no federal regulations involving bullying; but, according to this July 2012 report by the Cyberbullying Research Center, 49 out of 50 states have enacted laws addressing bullying, with school policy requirements; 15 include cyberbullying provisions; 45 include electronic harassment; 12 have criminal sanctions and 43 have school sanctions; but only 8 include off-campus behavior. Clearly, the problem is national, if not universal. Often times, with such prolific a societal issue, we are likely to see a web of laws spun in an effort to curtail the obscene conduct. It would not be surprising to see states follow North Carolina’s suit, with more cyberbullying laws moving into the criminal realm.

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