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Students’ First Amendment Rights of Freedom of Speech: Cyberbullying and Social Media Abuse

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For teenagers nationwide, the sound of a social media notification can fill them with dread. As technology has advanced, so has bullying. Today it is no longer necessary to be face to face in order to bully someone. “Now, emboldened by the anonymity available online, a bully can be nastier – and with the click of a mouse, have a far broader audience – than in the past” (Chaker). As a result, what once happened mainly on school campuses has now moved past those confines and into the homes. Victims of bullying can no longer escape their tormentors at the end of the school day by simply going home. Although schools must be careful about not infringing upon their student’s First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, it is important that they provide a place of learning that is free from fear and intimidation. Schools should have the right to discipline students for cyberbullying and social media abuse that occurs off campus because it directly affects a student’s feelings of safety and security while at school.

Today, with the rapid increases in technology and the popularity of the many different social media platforms, bullying has moved beyond the schools and into the homes. Face to face bullying has evolved into what is now called cyberbullying. “Cyberbullying is willful and repeated harm inflicted through computers, cell phones, and other electronic devices” (Hinduja and Patchin 2011). Although a cyberbully can hide their identity online, they still typically tend to be someone the victim knows versus a stranger. Cyberbullying is not just words on a screen you can ignore. Words are a very powerful tool, and just a few malicious words typed behind the anonymity of a computer screen can inflict pain and humiliation. The effects of cyberbullying “are real and dangerous, causing psychological, emotional, and physical stress” (Sumrall). Recent research on cyberbullying confirms that one of the best ways of coping is to talk about it. Studies are showing, however, that victims are less likely to talk about it with their teachers or parents, or they choose to only talk about it with their friends (Cerna). Cyberbullying is a growing issue among schools today that administrators need to face head on.

This issue is one that will not go away without intervention. According to a study done among 3,767 middle school students in several cities throughout the United States, “53.2% reported being cyberbullied by a student at school, 37% reported being cyberbullied by a friend, and 13% reported being cyberbullied by a sibling” (Chibbaro). The majority of victims know their bully. Typically, the relationship between the bully and the victim begins at school (Sumrall). Cyberbullying can even be an added extension of face to face bullying at school. A lot of the time, the victim is picked on because they are different. They usually suffer from low self-esteem and when picked on, they do not fight back. Although there have not been many studies on cyberbullying in the United States, one of the few studies done showed that cyberbullying was most common among middle school students (Beale and Hall 2007). There are many reasons for cyberbullying. Some of the most common are: to fit in with their peer group, to make themselves feel better, or jealousy. It is also easier to bully someone through a computer versus face to face. All of these reasons show that most of the time, with teens at least, cyberbullies tend to pick on people they know. When both bully and victim spend the majority of their time together at school, intervention by schools becomes necessary.

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When a student is cyberbullied, the emotional impact on the victim and the inability to escape their bully is devastating. With cyberbullying being most widespread among junior high kids, the anxiety and stress it can produce is even more heightened, especially at this age, “a time when a child’s peer group becomes more important” (Sumrall). Cyberbullies tend to feel more empowered when sitting behind a computer screen rather than face to face, and what they say tends to be much more devastating to the victim. Being cyberbullied affects all areas of the victim’s life. Their home, a place where they should feel the safest, is no longer off limits to the bully. At school, the emotional and mental strain can be overwhelming. Sitting in class, knowing your bully is in the same room, or knowing that everyone else knows, can be very distracting and all consuming. Even online, the victim can be afraid to go onto any of their social media because of what they may read. Most victims of cyberbullying suffer from things like anxiety, panic disorders, depression, and physical stress like headaches, stomachaches, and loss of sleep. In some cases, suicide has felt like the only way to escape their tormentors. The effects of cyberbullying on a victim encompasses their entire being, both body and mind.

Before things escalate that far, all victims need to know that there are other options. “A very frequently recommended strategy…is seeking social support through talking about the experience” (Cerna). This could be talking to friends, parents or school counselors. A lot of teens, however, don’t talk to their parents, and the people they do confide in, usually friends, have no authority to do anything at all. They don’t tell their parents because they are either ashamed, afraid of getting into trouble, or worried they won’t believe them. Parents play an important role in a victim’s life, and when there is a lack of trust in the relationship, sometimes school administrators are the only ones left that can step in and help. “School administrators are responsible for ensuring that all students are provided an opportunity to attend school free from fear and intimidation” (Cerna). So when a victim feels like they have no one that can help them, or doesn’t want to tell their parents, a school administrator should be able to step in.

Admittedly, those who oppose the school’s right to step in and discipline a student for cyberbullying done off campus argue that it’s hard to accurately define what cyberbullying actually is. It becomes a very slippery slope when the line between the rights of the school versus the rights of the students is unclear. Some argue that it infringes on the students’ First Amendment rights of freedom of speech. Many argue that schools should not be allowed to police social media posts made off campus. In the case of J.C. vs. Beverly Hills Unified School District, an 8th grade student was being cyberbullied through the posting of a YouTube video (Hinduja and Patchin 2011). She had reported to her school counselor that she was so humiliated that she didn’t think she could go to school. The creator of the video was suspended for two days. When the parents of the bully sued based on the fact that they felt their child’s First Amendment rights had been violated, the federal judge “ruled that school authorities overstepped their bounds, (ostensibly) on the basis of the fact that the school could not prove that the offending speech and actions caused a substantial disruption of school activities” (Hinduja and Patchin 2011). Although cyberbullying does not propagate an environment of respect towards fellow students, scholars have argued “the freedom of expression must be respected in the classroom if it is to be respected at all” (Brunecz 22). However, when there has been a clear threat to a student or when the cyberbullying done off campus causes distractions at school, courts have held that school administrators can step in. For example, in the case of Kowalski vs. Berkeley County Schools, a student created a web page with the sole intent on humiliating another student. She encouraged her peers to join in, and as a result, because students were discussing the webpage during school, classes were being disrupted, and students were being distracted, the courts held “schools have a duty to protect their students from harassment and bullying in the school environment” and that duty is more important than a student’s First Amendment rights (Brunecz 29). So as long as school administrators can show that a case of cyberbullying will be a distraction to students at school, interfere with learning or teaching, or show a clear threat to another student, schools have a legal obligation to step in and intervene.

As technology has advanced, so have the ways in which we communicate. While the internet has opened up a whole new way of keeping in touch with friends and loved ones, it has also opened up an entire new way for bullies to torment their victims. Because technology is so readily available for students both at school and home, whether it’s computers or cell phones, school administrators must step up to ensure schools are free from fear and intimidation. Administrators need to make sure that school policies are updated to reflect cyberbullying. Both students and parents need to be educated on what cyberbullying is and its consequences, and administrators need to make sure they have created a climate at school where victims feel safe reporting any forms of cyberbullying. If administrators, parents, and students all work together, cyberbullying may not completely go away, but it can be greatly reduced, and perhaps even save lives.

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Students’ First Amendment Rights of Freedom of Speech: Cyberbullying and Social Media Abuse. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved August 12, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/students-first-amendment-rights-of-freedom-of-speech-cyberbullying-and-social-media-abuse/
“Students’ First Amendment Rights of Freedom of Speech: Cyberbullying and Social Media Abuse.” Edubirdie, 17 Mar. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/students-first-amendment-rights-of-freedom-of-speech-cyberbullying-and-social-media-abuse/
Students’ First Amendment Rights of Freedom of Speech: Cyberbullying and Social Media Abuse. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/students-first-amendment-rights-of-freedom-of-speech-cyberbullying-and-social-media-abuse/> [Accessed 12 Aug. 2022].
Students’ First Amendment Rights of Freedom of Speech: Cyberbullying and Social Media Abuse [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Mar 17 [cited 2022 Aug 12]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/students-first-amendment-rights-of-freedom-of-speech-cyberbullying-and-social-media-abuse/
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