It soon will be illegal for a student to bully a teacher online in North Carolina, under an expansion of the state’s cyber bullying law that goes into effect Dec. 1 and might be the first of its kind in the country.
The School Violence Prevention Act of 2012 will make it a misdemeanor for students to post something online “with the intent to intimidate or torment a school employee.” It builds on a similar law passed in 2009 that criminalized online bullying of a student or a student’s parent or guardian.
Legislators say the law is necessary to keep up with the rise of students on social media.
“On the internet, if it’s in print, a lot of times people accept it as the truth,” said the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Republican from Union County. “Certainly if you put something in print that could damage the reputation and character of a teacher, then there should be some sort of penalty.”
But critics say that what constitutes cyber bullying 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 notes that the law extends beyond libel, by criminalizing statements, “whether true or false,” that could provoke someone to harass a school employee.
“Even if you post a factual statement about your teacher, then it could be criminal depending on the interpretation of those words,” Preston said.
Tucker counters that intimidation has a clear definition — “to use a tactic that would cause someone to change one’s behavior” — that doesn’t need to be spelled out in the law. The General Assembly passed the law in July with only one dissenting vote.
Activities made illegal by the statute could include building a fake profile or website; posting personal or sexual information about school employees; and signing school employees up for pornographic websites or junk mail.
The law might be the first in the country to make student-on-teacher cyber bullying a crime, both Tucker and Preston said. The offense is a class 2 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail.
Cyber bullying as a crime
Local district attorneys have charged 37 people under the state’s 2009 cyber bullying law, though only three have been convicted, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.