TAR HEEL VIEW: Teenage taunts didn’t warrant criminal charge

Teenagers don’t need to be thrown in jail for teasing and taunting each other — whether the putdowns are traded in school lunchrooms and locker rooms or posted on Facebook.

That’s the gist of a wise and fair ruling the North Carolina Supreme Court issued last week. In a unanimous 7-0 opinion, justices struck down North Carolina’s cyberbullying statute on the grounds that it punishes speech protected by the First Amendment.

Robert Bishop, who was convicted of Class 2 misdemeanor cyberbullying in February 2014 for posting derogatory comments about a classmate at Southern Alamance High School, appealed his case to the high court after the N.C. Court of Appeals upheld his conviction, finding that the state law prohibited the conduct of posting comments online rather than the speech the comments contained.

If that kind of legal hairsplitting leaves you dizzy, you’re in good company. Writing for the full Supreme Court, Justice Robin Hudson rejected that disingenuous distinction.

“Posting information on the internet — whatever the subject matter — can constitute speech as surely as stapling fliers to bulletin boards or distributing pamphlets to passersby — activities long protected by the First Amendment,” Hudson wrote in the Friday ruling.

Alamance County sheriff’s deputies arrested Bishop and five other students on cyberbullying charges over a Facebook feud in February 2012. After the accuser sent a text message to the wrong person, the recipient posted a screenshot to Facebook and a string of critical comments followed.

“Many of the messages that ensued included comments and accusations about each other’s sexual proclivities, along with name-calling and insults,” Hudson wrote in a brief summary of the case.

While the court opinion doesn’t record the comments’ exact verbiage, it sounds to us like the same sort of ribbing and roasting that happens every day among teens and young men. Is implying someone is gay and mocking him for it a mark of immaturity? Absolutely. Should it be a crime? Absolutely not.

The North Carolina law prohibited posting “private, personal or sexual information pertaining to a minor” on the internet. Even if the statute had been found constitutional, we doubt it was appropriately applied this case. “Information” means facts. Speculation about a classmate’s sexual orientation is an opinion.

Following several high-profile student suicides, society in general and public schools in particular have cracked down on bullying. Overall, that’s a good thing. But the word that used to describe physical violence, threats and intimidation — remember the bullies of yore who stole kids’ lunch money? — has been redefined to include the use of verbal putdowns as well.

Lacking the clear parameters of precise legal terms like harassment, “bullying” has become a buzzword, a catchall phrase that can be used to label wide swaths of speech and behavior. Much of the speech the definition has been stretched to include falls firmly within the bounds of constitutional protection.

Hudson wrote that the state cyberbullying law “could criminalize behavior that a robust contemporary society must tolerate because of the First Amendment, even if we do not approve of the behavior.”

“Civility, whose definition is constantly changing, is a laudable goal,” she concluded, “but one not readily attained or enforced through criminal laws.”

Parents, teachers and classmates should correct those who pick on others. There are plenty of ways to do that without getting the criminal justice system involved. Social problems call for social solutions, not necessarily legal ones.

Hauling a student off in handcuffs and saddling him with a permanent criminal record for engaging in an adolescent war of words isn’t the answer. Thanks to the N.C. Supreme Court, that option is now off the table.

The Wilson Times

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