Come this Thursday, New York’s high court will be taking on one of the first legal challenges to new laws that criminalize cyber bullying. The 2010 Albany County law, like many similar laws that have been enacted across the country, has stirred up protest by free-speech advocates who are pushing for a reconsideration.
Once New York’s court comes to a decision, the ruling could have ramifications in other states as well. In New York, the criminal sanction isn’t state-wide, but still county-specific. Currently, about a dozen other states have similar laws, and several have been moving toward enacting them. If New York agrees that the penalties are overreaching, it will likely set a tone for future debates occurring in other state courts.
The current Albany law says it is a crime to send “private, personal, false, or sexual information,” with the intent to “harass, annoy, threaten, abuse, taunt, intimidate, torment, humiliate, or otherwise inflict significant emotional harm on another person.” An Albany County judge ruled last year that the law specifically applies to speech directed at minors, rather than adults. Daniel P. McCoy, Albany County Executive, agrees. “This is about harming children, and that’s what we’re identifying with this law, and I hope it stands in court,” he said. So far, at least five teenagers have been charged under the law.
Most laws originally stemmed from the 2006 death of a 13-year-old girl, Megan Meier. An adult neighbor posed as a teenage boy interested in Megan, only to cruelly reject her later — an act that drove the impressionable teenager to suicide. There have since been numerous reports of cyber-bullying — and suicide attempts that result from it — across the globe. According to McCoy, multiple states have asked about the legislation as a basis on which to model their own, but are waiting to observe the outcome of this case before moving forward.
The current legal challenge stems from one of the teenagers who was charged under it, Marquan W. Mackey-Meggs. Mackey-Meggs created a Facebook page in 2010 that he used to denigrate other students, posting both insults and graphic sexual comments. His arrest eventually led to Mackey-Meggs pleading guilty to cyberbullying — with the condition that he could challenge the constitutionality of the law in the higher state appeal courts.
“It was a really stupid thing. It was not a nice thing. But there’s a big difference between disciplining a child and showing them the error of their ways versus dragging them into a criminal court,” Mackey-Meggs’s lawyer, Christian deFrancqueville, has said of the legislation. He argues that the law treads on established free speech principles: “[It] goes beyond the narrow categories of unprotected speech that the government may regulate.”
“Playground or lunchroom bullying is not a new phenomenon, the medium in which the bullying takes place is. Children now have the ability to reach well beyond their circle of friends to literally thousands of eyeballs, unfortunately this only makes the situation worse for anyone being bullied or harassed,” states Paul Adkison, Founder of ZABRA. “Freedom of speech is a very important right that we must uphold, however, when children cross the line and threaten others, there must be consequence. Parents need to get engaged and influence their children on how to use social media and the internet.”