A new cyberbullying law goes into effect December 1 in North Carolina. It’s called the 2012 School Violence Protection Act, and it makes it a crime for students to post anything online with the intent to intimidate or torment a school employee. It unanimously passed the state Senate and fell just a vote short of that in the House.
Under the law, students can be charged with a misdemeanor for posting personal or sexual information about school employees. It’s also a crime to create a fake profile or website or to sign them up for pornographic or junk mail. A convicted student could face up to 60 days in jail or a $1,000 fine.
Judy Kidd is president of the Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina and a science teacher at Independence High School. She and her organization worked to get the law passed because teachers and school personnel were being falsely accused of crimes. She says, “there was not enough substantiation being given to warrant charges being filed. Then the case would not go to trial because there was not enough evidence to support the allegations.”
Kidd thinks this treatment of teachers relates to a fundamental problem in today’s society. She says, “I don’t care how old you are; if you haven’t learned that lying is wrong, then the sooner you learn it, the better off you’re going to be.”
She hopes the new law will help to protect teachers who can feel threatened or humiliated when they’re targeted by cyber bullying.
The North Carolina Association of Educators joined the Classroom Teachers’ Association in supporting the law. But the North Carolina Chapter of the ACLU has come out against it. WFAE’s Duncan McFadyen spoke to the ACLU’s state policy director Sarah Preston about why she thinks the law goes too far.
PRESTON: We haven’t seen a lot of laws that target free speech and that target children, and that’s exactly what this law does. We’re not sure exactly how far this law could go, because one of the problems is how vague it is. For example actually posting on, let’s say, Facebook, that they saw Mrs. X and a student in what appeared to be an inappropriate embrace---and that’s completely true----it could result in criminal charges for that student.
MCFADYEN: Do you think there’s a problem with students disrespecting teachers and distracting them from their work?
PRESTON: I’m not sure. Here’s what I would say about that. We are essentially with this law, criminalizing what students have always done. As long as there have been schools, students have been carving gripes into their desktop or writing complaints about teachers on the bathroom wall. It wasn’t criminal when it was done that way, and it shouldn’t be criminal when it’s on Facebook.
MCFADYEN: Was there a law already on the books that might’ve covered this in a less vague manner? I know you feel it’s too broad.
PRESTON: There are already obviously stalking laws on the books, and that includes electronic stalking. I think why this is troubling is that it targets children. That means for 16 or 17 year olds an actual criminal record, because they’re treated as adults in North Carolina, for something that kids have always done. Kids don’t always think things through; we know that. And to have them have an actual criminal record, spend some time in jail, pay a thousand-dollar fine, because they haven’t fully understood all the consequences of their actions. We just don’t think that’s appropriate.
MCFADYEN: The teachers association told me that they feel like the schools are dropping the ball on this, that they’re not using their powers of expulsion, and that’s why they felt they had to turn to the legislature. As this one teacher put it, the children have to learn at some point, if they’re saying inappropriate things, at some point it’s going to catch up with them.
PRESTON: That’s really interesting. I think…the reason I say that’s interesting is, what you’re really teaching young people is they should not tell the truth, they should not speak freely, and they should not question authority. And if it’s illegal for students to criticize teachers online, what’s to stop the government from making it illegal for you or me to criticize the mayor, or the state legislature, or the president?
The ACLU doesn’t have any current plans to challenge the law in court, but it is encouraging students who are charged under it to contact its Raleigh office.