Cyber Bullying: Legality vs Morality

A Federal Judge has ruled that a former high school student can proceed with her lawsuit against her old high school over a facebook-related suspension. She was suspended for posting unflattering comments about a teacher on a facebook page, and urged others to join her, and is now suing to have her record expunged (you can read full story here). There was a similar ruling in December from across the country – in this case, a student was suspended over cyberbullying content aimed at another student and posted on YouTube (you can read that story here).

In both of these cases the justice system is siding with the individuals who use digital media to post derogatory comments about another person – today referred to as a “cyber bully”. The judges in both cases are listening to arguments related to the first ammendment, and extending that right of free speech to digital Internet communications. Seems like an appropriate interpretation of “free speech”.

On the flip side of the issue is a now-famous case involving Sue Scheff, who was defamed online. Sue brought a case against her attacker, and eventually won an $11.3M verdict, which has now been upheld on appeal (you can read about her case in her book Google Bomb).

So, what are we to conclude from these cases? That kids can say anything they want without fear of retribution, but adults can be held accountable for their words and actions? I guess that would be one way to interpret these cases. But, I tend to see this just a bit differently. For me, it comes down to a subtle yet dramatic change in the world in which we live.

Today kids are empowered with tools that we didn’t have when I was young. If I had a problem with a teacher, or a fellow student, I could tell maybe 20 peolple. My parents would get wind of it, and they would sit me down and have a heart-to-heart. I would then have the “opportunity” to return to the invididual that I was defaming, and apologize. No harm, no foul – and I got to learn a lesson about how we treat others.

Today, our kids can tell thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people – including future employers, college recruitters, future spouses or religious leaders. Word can spread quickly, and once it is in cyberspace, it is there forever. Whether the person we are defaming is a student or an adult, the information is now “out there” for anyone to search and find, and the ramifications are much more far-reaching than they were before digital media. By the time the young one realizes they were too harsh, an apology to the defamed individual is not going to resolve the issue any longer.

For me, these cases highlight the fact that in todays digital world it is even more important than ever for parents to be teaching morality and ethics, rather than just legal right and wrong. They need to teach digital responsibility. Parents need to know what their children are doing, how they are using digital media, and what their children are saying about others – be they students, teachers, leaders, or anyone else. Parents need to know how their children are using technology, just as they need to know how their children are using the car. If the children do not show restraint in their use of technology, it is up to the parents, not the legal system, to reign them in.

Of course, this means that parents need to understand the persistent nature of digital media, and parents need to understand that posting untrue, or even extremely biased opinions about other people can be extremely dangerous to those individuals. A student who posts defamatory comments about a teacher could have a very negative impact on that teachers ability to earn a living – while this may be legal, it may not be morally right. Parents have to instill in their children their moral compas, and help teach them to be guided by this compas throughout thier lives.

In our digital world, a momentary lapse of judgement by an adolescent who doesn’t think through the consequences of their actions can lead to very real, and very serious consequences. Informed and involved parents can go a long way toward minimizing the impact of such lapses of judgement.

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