Guilty: Teenage Cyberbullies NOT Protected By Free Speech

CJ Westerberg, June 18, 2010 10:43 AM


NYTimes Update June 28, 2010:   HERE. "Online Bullies Pull Schools Into The Fray".

Listen Up Parents & Schools:
Your Kids Can Be Guilty Of Slander & Hate Crimes
Decrees California Court

"Beat Bullying" Video By UK Celebs Below

Schools and parents beware.  The freedom of the press does not apply to Johnny or Jane's "defamatory" remarks on the Internet to one of his or her friends.  That is, if California courts have anything to do with it.

So the next time you think your son or daughter is free from any charges against them, think twice.  School administration and officials, if you think turning your head the other way in matters of cyberbullying, may find your institution with a lawsuit.  And, private school entry fees are no protection, either.

What's more, this recent ruling raises multiple questions about what constitutes private and public information.  According to Wired magazine:

"The case raises fundamental questions about cyberbullying and the line between online speech and hate crimes.

In her dissenting opinion, Judge Frances Rothschild said the appellate court ruling "alters the legal landscape to the severe detriment of First Amendment rights."

In fact, the father of an alleged victim sued the school board of directors and three school employees of private school Harvard-Westlake in Los Angeles , (with tuition approximately $30,000. per year),  in addition to six parents and students in this cyberbullying story that is further unfolding in the press:

According to the legal document posted 3/15/10:

A 15-year-old high school student was pursuing a career in entertainment and
maintained a Web site for that purpose.  Several of his fellow students posted messages at the Web site, making derogatory comments about his perceived sexual orientation and threatening him with bodily harm.
The aggrieved student and his parents filed this action against the other students
and their parents, alleging a statutory claim under California's hate crimes laws (Civ. Code, §§ 51.7, 52.1) and common law claims for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.; In response, one of the student-defendants and his parents filed a special motion to strike, contending that the action was a "strategic lawsuit against public participation" (SLAPP) (Code Civ. Proc., § 425.16; all undesignated section references are to that code unless otherwise indicated).
The docket continues, after elaborating on the exact language used, with an alarming story  that is riddled with denial and avoidance:               

The students who posted the threats sought to destroy D.C.'s life, threatened to murder him, and wanted to drive him out of Harvard-Westlake and the community in which he lived.  They were motivated by a misperception of D.C.'s sexual orientation. When D.C.'s father read the threats at the Web site, he immediately informed Harvard- Westlake of the problem, believing that some of its students were responsible.  The father also contacted the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), which, in turn, notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
"On the advice of the police, D.C. withdrew from Harvard-Westlake.  He and his
family moved to Northern California, where he went to a different educational institution.  The Harvard-Westlake student newspaper, The Chronicle, ran at least two articles on the matter.  One article disclosed D.C.'s new residential location and the name of the school he was attending.  The article also disclosed that posts at the Web site had referred to D.C. as a "faggot".  Harvard-Westlake did not suspend or expel any of the students who admitted posting the threats."

The court ruling:

" . . .In sum, in light of the allegations in the complaint and the evidence submitted by
both sides, the R.'s did not demonstrate that R.R.'s message was protected by the First Amendment.  In statutory terms, the R.'s failed to show that plaintiffs' causes of action ―aris[e] from any act . . . in furtherance of the [R.'s] right of . . . free speech."  (§ 425.16, subd. (b)(1).)

C. Public Issue Under the Anti-SLAPP Statute
 In attempting to meet the statutory requirement that the complaint arise from speech made in connection with a public issue, the R.'s contend that D.C. was a "public figure" or a "limited public figure" and that anything said publicly about such a person necessarily involves a public issue.  We conclude the complaint does not involve a public issue.  
"Web sites accessible to the public . . . are "public forums" for purposes of the anti-SLAPP statute."  (Nygård, Inc. v. Uusi-Kerttula (2008) 159 Cal.App.4th 1027, 1039, italics added; accord, Barrett v. Rosenthal (2006) 40 Cal.4th 33, 41, fn. 4.)  But not every Web site post involves a public issue.  (See § 425.16, subd. (e)(3) [requiring that speech be made in a public forum and in connection with an issue of public interest].)  ―[M]ere publication . . . on a Web site[] should not turn otherwise private information . . . into a matter of public interest."  (Du Charme v. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, supra, 110 Cal.App.4th at p. 117.)

 No authority supports the R.'s broad proposition that anything said or written about a public figure or limited public figure in a public forum involves a public issue.  Rather, as stated, the California cases establish that generally, "[a] public issue is implicated if the subject of the statement or activity underlying the claim (1) was a person or entity in the public eye; (2) could affect large numbers of people beyond the direct participants; or (3) involved a topic of widespread, public interest. . ."

As Wired recaps:
"In their ruling, the majority judges write that the message the student posted to the site was "unequivocal" and "a serious expression of intent to inflict bodily harm.""That these words produce grotesque and exaggerated images does not lessen the gravity of the threat," they write. "The threat in this case was not merely a few words shouted during a brawl; it was a series of grammatically correct sentences composed at a computer keyboard over a period of at least several minutes."

An attorney for the defendants said he would appeal the decision to the state's supreme court."


What experiences have you had with cyber-bullying? 
What did you do about it (or wish you did about it?)

 UK Celebrities:  "Beat Bullying" video below.

Related links:

Kiwi Commons - Q&A :How To Deal With Hate On the Internet.  Link here.
Stop Cyberbullying.org - Link here.
Cyberbullying.org - Link here.
New York Times:  Rethinking Sex Offender Laws For Youth Texting.  Link here.

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