The N.C. Supreme Court unanimously struck down part of the state’s cyberbullying statute last week, finding that one of its provisions violates the First Amendment.
The case in question, State v. Bishop, came out of Alamance County. But the details of the underlying online exchange are likely all too familiar to anyone living in the digital age.
“Trading inappropriate comments, sending embarrassing pictures and video, and real-time gossiping are common daily events in the lives of our students,” Dr. Travis Reeves, superintendent of Surry County Schools, stated in an email.
“Due to the exponential nature of social media, these events that begin as peer-to-peer interactions can quickly spread across multiple users creating a cyber-bullying situation.”
The Alamance County situation started with text messages between the victim, a high school sophomore, and his classmates, according to information included in the Supreme Court’s June 10 opinion and a June 2015 N.C. Court of Appeals opinion.
The defendant had posted screenshots of those messages on Facebook page, which resulted in a string of comments.
The Supreme Court opinion states that the defendant posted several comments about the victim, “which included posts calling him ‘homophobic’ and ‘homosexual,’ and that he was ‘slamming someone on the open forum that is the internet.’ Defendant also stated ‘he never got the chance to slap [the victim] down before Christmas break.’ Defendant made additional comments rife with vulgarity.”
One night, the victim’s mother found her son “crying, punching his pillow, beating himself in the head, and throwing things in his room.”
She inspected his phone and discovered the derogatory comments, and subsequently reached out to law enforcement.
After an investigation, the defendant was charged with cyberbullying under G.S. 14-458.1(a)(1)(d), which makes it unlawful for any person to use a computer or computer network to “post or encourage others to post on the internet private, personal, or sexual information pertaining to the minor.”
This offense is punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor if the defendant is 18 years of age or older at the time committed or a Class 2 misdemeanor if under 18.
A minor convicted of the charge is eligible for a deferred prosecution arrangement where the charge may be dismissed upon the successful completion of special probation.
A Superior Court jury found the defendant guilty.
The defendant appealed, arguing that the underlying statute violated the first amendment and that the trial court had violated his fourteenth amendment.
The Court of Appeals upheld the conviction, finding that the statute “regulates intentional conduct, not the content of speech,” comparing it to the Harrassing Telephone Calls statute.
“The cyber-bullying statute punishes the act of posting or encouraging another to post on the internet with the intent to intimidate or torment. Like the telephone, the internet can also be used as an instrumentality for communication. However, its use for sharing thoughts and ideas does not prevent the internet from also being used as a mechanism for individuals to engage in harassing or tormenting conduct.”
“It was not the content of Defendant’s Facebook comments that led to his conviction of cyber-bullying. Rather, his specific intent to use those comments and the Internet as instrumentalities to intimidate or torment”
The Supreme Court reversed that decision in a unanimous ruling.
The June 10 opinion states that the provision “restricts speech, not merely nonexpressive conduct; that this restriction is content based, not content neutral; and that the cyberbullying statute is not narrowly tailored to the state’s asserted interest in protecting children from the harms of online bullying.”
“It’s probably not going to have much of an effect on what we do,” Surry County Assistant District Attorney Mark Miller said of the ruling.
“The state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals put out cases all the time that changes how we do things,” he said. “We just adapt and move on.”
Miller noted that cyber-bullying is “not something we see a whole lot of.”
Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson, however, said it does happen with some frequency locally. While the cases may not end up in court or with charges, “we do have a fair amount of cyberbullying,” particularly in high school or middle school.
He indicated that situations are usually dealt with through conflict resolution with parental or school involvement.
Officials from both school systems in Surry County said that all forms of harassment, bullying and cyberbullying are and will continue to be prohibited, and that administrators get involved when the conflict disrupts the educational day.
“Bullying will not be tolerated whether it be cyberbullying or otherwise,” said Dr. Kim Morrison, superintendent of Mount Airy City Schools.
“State general statutes and regulations certainly provide standards and protocols for how we deal with potentially unlawful activity,” Reeves said. “However, while the law may now not specifically forbid posting or encouraging others to post on the internet private, personal or sexual information relating to a minor, our test is still disruption to the educational environment.”
Any legally mandated changes to school policy are made with the input of the school district attorney, he said.
“While it is hard to say at this point how this N.C. Supreme Court ruling will directly affect our operations, our schools will continue to strive to provide a safe, nurturing caring environment for our students every day. We will continue to treat seriously all incidents that threaten student safety, including cyberbullying.”
The administrator encouraged students and parents to report any harassment, bullying or cyberbullying to school personnel as soon as it occurs.
Incidents can be reported anonymously via a Tip Line available on district and school websites and the district app for mobile devices.
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.