In North Carolina, any and all bullying of teachers by students will be outlawed as part of a broad anti-bullying legislation that goes into effect on December 1st of this year. The School Violence Prevention Act of 2012 will make it a misdemeanor for a student to post online anything that aims to intimidate or torment a school employee. This will serve to extend the protection offered to students and their parents against cyberbullies by a 2009 law to teachers and school staff.
State Senator Tommy Tucker, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said that this protection was necessary because many people now give things posted online the same kind of credence they used to reserve for information published in print. This means that a slur against someone on a social network can have the same kind of damage on their reputation as a falsity printed in a newspaper.
But critics say that what constitutes cyberbullying isn’t clear in the law and that fear of punishment could stifle free speech. State law has never defined the word “intimidate,” said Sarah Preston, American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina policy director.
“Without definitions of ‘torment’ or ‘intimidate,’ it’s not clear what online activity will violate the law,” Preston said. “It does invite arbitrary enforcement because there’s no clear legal standard.”
Preston also points out that unlike accusations of libel, for which truth is an absolute defense, the law criminalizes statements whether they are true or false. Depending on how the statement is interpreted, even the truth could run afoul of the new rules.
Tucker, however, believes that such concerns are unwarranted. He explains that intimidation has a clear definition in law as something designed to get a target to change their behavior, and therefore it didn’t need to be restated in the text of the legislation. Students found to be breaking the law can be charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor punishable with up to 60 days in prison.
Since the first North Carolina cyberbullying law passed in 2009, 37 students have had charges filed against them.
Two students at South Johnston High School in Four Oaks – Justin Ray Jackson and Joshua Aarron Temple – were charged with cyberbullying in February 2011. Jackson was accused of posting comments about running over a 15-year-old fellow student with his pickup truck, and Temple was charged with posting that he would bring a gun to school to hunt the student.
Lawyers settled the matter out of court and charges were dropped after the teens completed community service.
Cyberbullying cases are difficult to prosecute, said Jameson Marks, the Johnston County assistant district attorney assigned to the case. “Just because something was posted from their account doesn’t mean that they’re the ones who posted it,” Marks said. “People get pranked like that a lot. Being able to prove that it was that person who sat at that computer and typed that is difficult.”