Free speech advocates have criticized Rep. Shirley Walters’ anti-cyberbullying bill, which was approved 91-7 by the House last week and awaits further action in the Senate. But this criticism oversimplifies a complex issue and discourages discussion of a very real problem.
Bullying, as defined by the National Institute of Child Health and Development, is intentionally damaging behavior that is carried out repeatedly over time and targeted at someone less powerful. It may be verbal, in the form of threats; psychological, as in spreading rumors or ostracizing; or physical, as in plain old pushing someone around.
If you’re still bitter about that lugnut who beat your lunch money out of you every other day of high school, you know how damaging this stuff can be. Some say it’s just part of growing up, but I’ll bet a lot of those people grew up in the days before metal detectors became a commonplace sight at high schools.
Cyberbullying is particularly pernicious, because it’s largely invisible; if a bully is dumb enough to corner you in a hallway, there’s at least a chance someone could intervene. But what can a teacher do about 300 anonymous e-mails encouraging one student to kill herself?
It happens. And there’s a word for it: “bullycide.” The Centers for Disease Control reports that roughly 2,000 young people attempt suicide every year, and among those who leave notes, many mention having been bullied. Some do it because they can’t stand being bullied anymore. Some do it to deny their tormenters the pleasure of continued abuse. Sometimes bullies tell them they should, and because they’re hormonally predisposed to monumentally low self-esteem, they figure they might as well.
The Internet is a virtual graveyard for these children. A simple search produces dozens of web sites devoted to the memories of sons and daughters lost to bullying. The specific stories are horrible. Peer groups organize concerted attacks on one subject, and the target may receive dozens of nasty e-mails and text or instant messages per day for weeks or months on end. Another popular sport is the creation of online forums specifically for posting mean or threatening comments about one student. The classic taunt “fatty, fatty, two-by-four” sounds like a lullaby next to “people don’t like you because you are a suicidal cow who can’t stop eating,” which is just one of hundreds of messages on a web site devoted to a Dallas sophomore, an entire page of which consisted of the words “die bitch queen” repeated ad nauseum.
Anti-bullying legislation is already written into Arkansas code, though it may vary by district. The new bill would amend the existing legislation by providing a uniform definition of bullying and would include cyberbullying. The two main criticisms of the bill are that it is unconstitutional, because it violates the right to free speech, and that it is designed too much in the interests of its primary author, Rep. Walters. Walters is from Greenwood, which lost a lawsuit over the punishment of two students who had created an online comic poking fun at school administrators. The bill includes protection for school officials, and some critics say that it is simply Walters’ thinly veiled attempt to make good for her town by destroying oppressed and defenseless students’ First Amendment right to make fun of teachers.
Umm. Students today are more protected than ever. A teacher can barely tell a student to stop talking during class without risking a lawsuit, and if parents are called in to discuss a student’s behavior, the teacher is lucky not to be bullied by the parents themselves. I’m reminded of an anecdote from a colleague of my father’s, something he told repeatedly around the time that parents were starting to complain about discipline at school. He had gone to Catholic school, and recalled that if he ran home crying about being hit by one of the nuns, his father — without even asking why — would hit him again.
I’m not advocating hitting children, but I don’t think students — many of whom by junior high are much bigger than their teachers — should be able to say and do whatever they want. And I’m not skeptical enough to believe that the bill doesn’t at all have the protection of students in mind. Would it have been better received if someone else’s name were attached to it? Is it unconstitutional to prohibit 20 students from repeatedly telling someone — even via e-mails sent from home — that she’s a fat slut who deserves to die?
It’s a moot point anyway. Teen-agers can simply be really mean, and no legislation is going to change that. But maybe if we got a little more “if you can’t say something nice...” from parents, we wouldn’t get “you can’t say anything at all” from the government.