Cyberbullying Bill Criminalizes WV Youth

The ACLU of West Virginia has been at the forefront of ensuring that kids in our state feel safe and feel free to be themselves.  The mental and emotional health and well-being of our youth is vitally  important.  Our affiliate has been active in seeking more opportunity and access for mental and behavioral health services for our youth.  We have taken on schools that have been deficient in their affirmative duty to provide a learning environment free of bullying and harassment.   

So you might think that we would support HB 2655, the anti-cyberbullying law that is working its way through the House of Delegates. However, we simply cannot support this bill.

At first blush, it may seem like this bill offers a viable solution to the very real concerns over cyberbullying.  However, the bill creates an inappropriate distinction between digital and in-person speech.  Moreover, HB 2655 would necessarily result in harsh punitive measures against youth convicted. Disturbingly, it’s remedy is incarceration rather than focusing on more proven rehabilitative methods.  We are working to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system.  We are not going to give up on any of our kids–even bullies.

We reject the increasing criminalization of common youth behavior.  When youth engage in bullying and harassment, the appropriate intervention is through parents, mentors, or educators.  It is certainly not through the courts.  

Additionally, the fundamental right to free speech and expression, even speech that is odious and hurtful is just as important.  In both Reno v. ACLU and Ashcroft v. ACLU, which struck down the “Child Online Protection Act”, courts have recognized that this fundamental right applies to online speech too, even when balanced against protecting youth.  There are already criminal and civil remedies for intentionally harmful behavior that are sufficient to address “cyber-bullying,” to the extent that online activities do not encompass protected speech or other First Amendment rights.  We cannot give into the knee-jerk reaction of  banning speech we do not like.

Parents are best positioned to monitor their children’s online activity, not the government. We should encourage parents to remain informed and active in what in what their children access and how they act online. Ultimately, the only way for the Internet to remain a true marketplace of ideas in the 21st Century is to continue to promote the free exchange of information and speech, with the understanding that online speech can be as beneficial or as hurtful as speech occurring offline.

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