The first anti-bullying law in Massachusetts was signed yesterday following the tragic suicide of Phoebe Prince.
Civil rights lawyers and plaintiffs’ attorneys are now questioning if the law has gone too far in limiting student’s right to free speech.
As Governor Deval Patrick signed the anti-bullying law supported celebrated it as the best effort yet in deterring the behavior which led 15-year-old Phoebe Prince to take her own life.
Some 44 states across the country now ban bullying of student, both online and in person. However federal law suits are now increasing as parents of students who have been charged under these acts are fighting back.
State Representative Martha Walz, who was the primary sponsor for the anit-bullying bill in Massachusetts said she had focused on drafting a bill that preserved the First Amendment rights of students.
She said “That was a very significant concern of mine — that we do not trample on the civil liberties of students."
Walz said the bill is unique as it has built on the laws which other states hold. The bill gained momentum as the news of Phoebe Prince’s suicide made international headlines.
This bill will require all students from kindergarten through 12th grade undertake anti-bullying curriculum every year. This course will be covered in private as well as public schools.
“The way we’re going to address the bullying problem is to fundamentally change the school culture," said Walz.
“One of the ways to do that is to educate the students from a very early age about how to interact with one another, how to deal with conflict, and how to help classmates when they are being treated inappropriately.”
While Walz’s attitude to bullying makes sense others believe that it is against the First Constitution.
Evan S. Cohen, a Los Angeles lawyer, won a federal case on behalf of his daughter. She had been suspended from school for posting a video on YouTube. The video contained footage of her friends mocking a classmate in a restaurant.
In this case the judge ruled said “simply because another student takes offense to their speech, without any evidence that such speech caused a substantial disruption of the school’s activities.
“The court cannot uphold school discipline of student speech simply because young persons are unpredictable or immature, or because, in general, teenagers are emotionally fragile and may often fight over hurtful comments."
In Mercer County, Pennsylvania the district lost the right to suspend a teenage boy after he created a fake MySpace page for his principal, referring to him as a “big steroid freak” and a “big whore”. The court ruled that the page was protected under free speech.
It seems that school districts are finding it difficult to strike a balance between combating cyber-bullying and avoiding freedom of speech violations.
Boston civil rights lawyer, Harvey A. Silverglate said “School authorities are going to overreact, and we’re going to have a firestorm of administrative actions against kids for saying things that are merely slightly unpleasant but do not qualify as bullying or harassment or stalking or any other such thing."
Walz said she has already taken note of problems that might arise, such as every little complaint being brought to the attention of the police. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education plan to draft a policy on when schools should contact the police.
She believes that most bullying allegations will remain in the schools but will be highlighted and brought into the light. It is hoped that steps such as these will prevent tragedies, like Phoebe Prince’s suicide, happening again.