Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Cyber-bullying is not ‘free speech’

Should people who use e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging and the social networks to bully or harass others be allowed to do so as part of their constitutionally protected right to free speech?” This question was posed to more than 240,000 students in 450 middle and high schools as part of MyVote California, a student mock election, this past week.

MyVote California is a civic engagement project that coincides with state elections and gives students hands-on exposure to democracy.

“Some California high school students will cast their first ballots next week and many more students will become voters by the November general election,” said Secretary of State Debra Bowen.

Carlé Continuation High School has participated in MyVote in the past; this time Middletown High School was among participating California schools.

Bowen reported last week that preliminary returns in the mock election showed that top presidential vote-getters in Democratic and Republican parties were Barack Obama and John McCain. The mock election also included three ballot initiatives, which included the question about cyber-bullying.

“I wanted to see how students would feel about issues that would directly affect their lives and their wallets,” explained Bowen, “which is why MyVote included three simulated ballot initiatives dealing with issues that legislators are actually grappling with today.”

Returns for the ballot measure showed 58.6 percent of students voting to indicate “No,” that cyber-bullying should not be treated as constitutionally-protected free speech.

As a supporter of the first amendment, I endorse public expression of constitutionally-guaranteed speech. However, I am also a staunch supporter of another constitutional protection, our implied right to privacy. I believe that cyber-bullying is less an exercise in speech than it is an invasion of privacy.

When you use e-mail, instant messaging and text messaging, you are not engaged in public expression; you are sending private correspondence. And as much as a sender may think he has the right to send me hate-filled messages, I am equally convinced of my right not to be bombarded with unwanted speech.

I can turn off the TV or radio if I don’t care for the values they promote. I can stay home from films that seem repellent.

I can pick and choose from books, magazines, newspapers and Web sites to read from. But short of screening telephone calls, enrolling in mass-market protection lists and imposing filters on unwanted senders, I have little control over which people send me personal communication or correspondence.

I’m not saying that unwanted correspondence is automatically a crime. If it was, I could single-handedly tie up our courts with every person who has ever been rude to me. I’d reserve special charges against people who try to bully me because they expect immediate publicity in the newspaper.

What I am saying, however, is that local students have a right not to be subjected to bullying. Konocti educators and administrators are working to protect this right.

It’s amazing to think how times have changed since more than 20 years ago, when I graduated from Calistoga Junior/Senior High School. Cyber bullying wasn’t an issue, only the face-to-face kind — but let me tell you, it hurt.

I believe that Internet-based, “cyber” bullying can have just as devastating an impact as the “traditional,” face-to-face kind.

I’m glad that a majority of California students are able to make a distinction between taking liberties with personal expression and being secure in one’s right to privacy.

Published Feb. 6, 2008 in the Clear Lake Observer American

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