Teen Cyberbullying Investigated: Where Do Your Rights End and Consequences Begin?

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Teen Cyberbullying Investigated: Where Do Your Rights End and Consequences Begin?
Thomas A. Jacobs
Free Spirit Publishing Inc.
195 pages.

Amid all the talk about cyberbullying, Judge Tom Jacobs’ no-nonsense approach cites chapter and verse from actual court cases, in a straightforward, thought-provoking way. He’s not out to preach, just to inform teens, parents and educators about the possible consequences of their actions.

Forty years after the debut of the Internet, Jacobs notes, more than 90 percent of teenagers in the U.S. are wired. More than half of them have profiles on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. Such limitless communications add “new complexity” to free expression issues, says Jacobs, a retired commissioner in juvenile and family courts for Maricopa County, Ariz.

In his fourth book about teens and the law, Jacobs directly addresses young people about the “current cyberbullying epidemic,” in which cell phones and computers offer “endless new ways to threaten, harass, abuse, insult and bully others.” Among all American teenagers who use the Internet, 32 percent report some type of online harassment; 85 percent of middle school students say they’ve been cyberbullied. According to Jacobs, cyberbullying’s most common forms include sending “insulting or threatening messages,” spreading “hateful comments” through social media, using a false identity to harass or creating a website to target someone.

The book begins with a summary of America’s history of student free expression, noting that many new federal and state laws on cyberbullying are pending. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the First Amendment protects Internet speech that is “reasonable under the circumstances,” it has yet to define the limits of minors’ electronic speech. In the past decade, says Jacobs, “legal protection to ever-changing technologies” has been evolving within state and local courts in “ongoing attempts to balance free speech rights of students with the responsibilities of schools.”

The rest of the book examines cases in which cyberbullies have used media such as videos, photos, graphics, artwork, fake online profiles, icons and screensavers to victimize others through e-mail, websites, online social networks, blogs, chat rooms, message boards, text messages and instant messaging. Half the featured cases concern students’ criticisms of principals and teachers. It’s so common that many teens may not even consider their actions as cyberbullying; Jacobs tries to delineate what legally may be considered cyberbullying and the effects teens’ actions may have on themselves and others, including their parents.

Each chapter is structured to encourage teen readers to reflect on a pivotal court case and several related cases. For example, the “Litigating Lewdness” chapter presents Gregory Requa v. Kent School District (2007). “Act: placing a link on his MySpace profile to a video of his teacher, along with critical comments. Charge: creating a lewd and offensive video of a teacher in the classroom.”

The case summary explains that a student, identified as S.W., filmed his English teacher on his cell phone from behind, focusing on her rear. Shots included another male student making faces and pelvic thrusts toward her back. Greg Requa, whose name heads the case, admitted only to linking the video, already on YouTube, to his MySpace page. Other students claimed that Requa added graphics, music and comments on the teacher’s teaching methods and hygiene.

Only when a Seattle television station aired the video did the teacher see it. Requa then removed his MySpace link. Each student involved received a 40-day school suspension for sexual harassment, to be halved if he wrote a research paper. Requa and his parents appealed to the school board and then to district court.

In this chapter and others, Jacobs asks questions to help teenagers probe “How Would You Decide This Case?” Then he reveals the actual outcome. In this case, Requa’s argument that the video was mere criticism was rebuffed; the court judged it “lewd and offensive.” At the heart of Jacobs’ discussion of “How Does This Decision Affect You?” is his advice: “Consider the bigger picture of how your behavior might be interpreted.”

Jacobs contacted his featured litigants to discover what they are doing now. In college studying digital arts and design, Requa offers revealing advice to youth who read about his case: “Don’t fall victim to peer pressure; it will usually make you end up hating what you did.”

Related cases concern teachers on film, lewdness and obscenity, and sexting (sexual texting). The chapter ends with pithy “Things to Think About” in relation to these issues, along with a list of further resources.

Threats to fellow students occurred in four cases, exemplified by Ryan Dwyer v. Oceanport School District (2005). Eighth-grader Ryan knew his rights. On his own website about “the worst school on this planet,” Ryan advised, “Use your First Amendment rights wisely.” His guestbook invited comments with the warning: “NO PROFANITY AT ALL!!!!!!! and no threats to any teacher or person EVER.” He provided links to sites about students’ constitutional rights.

But visitors paid no heed. His guestbook gathered profanity, ethnic slurs and threats against his New Jersey school, fellow students and the school principal. When the principal discovered his site, Ryan was suspended and barred from school events. But after a district court ruled that a website creator is not responsible for information added by others, the school district paid $117,500 for damages and attorney fees. “You need your First Amendment rights to get change,” Ryan declared in a news conference.

The most disturbing cases appear in the last chapter, “When Cyberbullying Turns Deadly.” In its central case, United States v. Lori Drew (2008) in Missouri, Drew, 47, played a hoax on 13-year-old Megan Meier, a neighbor and classmate of her daughter. To check up on Megan’s views of Drew’s daughter, Drew created a fake MySpace profile for nonexistent Josh Evans, 16, who was friendly with Megan for six weeks. Then “Josh” broke off the friendship, telling Megan that the world would be better without her. The same day, Megan hanged herself with a belt in her closet.

As a MySpace user, Drew had agreed not to solicit information from minors or harass others, which prosecutors used as grounds to charge her.  Because Missouri had no specific law to address the situation, a federal grand jury indicted Drew, under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, on charges of conspiracy, fraudulent use of the Internet, and providing false information to MySpace. In what Jacobs calls “the nation’s first criminal cyberbullying trial,” Drew faced up to 20 years in prison. A jury found her guilty, but the judge acquitted her, ruling that the computer fraud law did not cover her actions. Still, the Megan Meier Foundation has affected many with its Stop Cyberbullying Pledge, “Think before you click” – which Jacobs himself repeats to conclude his book.

Jacobs invites his teen audience to assess these cases, explore issues further and evaluate their own behavior. “What does it mean to be a good citizen in our e-world” with its “vast and unknowable audience?” he asks. He advises youths to consider issues such as respecting privacy as well as consequences that can include school suspension and worse – before circulating photos of underaged friends drinking alcohol and doing other seemingly harmless stunts.

Jacobs dedicates his book to these cases’ nine victims, aged 13 to 18, who ended their own lives. Young people who reflect on the book’s provocative cases and additional tools – a wealth of short articles containing facts about teens’ online behavior around the world, Internet safety tips, web resources and more – can make informed decisions about online behavior based on their rights and responsibilities.  (800) 735-7323, www.freespirit.com; author’s website: www.askthejudge.info.