Court tightens definition of cyber-bullying

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The 1st Amendment doesn’t protect hostile Internet banter among teenagers if the messages can be taken as genuine threats of harm, a California appeals court has ruled in a case that more clearly defines when free expression crosses a line into cyber-bullying.

The 2-1 ruling by the 2nd District Court of Appeal will allow a lawsuit to go forward that was brought by the father of a 15-year-old student at the elite Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City.

The father’s lawsuit accuses six of his son’s classmates and their parents of hate crimes, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress caused by their posting of death threats and anti-gay diatribes against the boy on his website.


The target of the postings, identified only as D.C., had created a personal website to promote his music and acting career under the stage name of Danny Alexander.

Incorrectly deducing that the boy was gay, classmates and others who visited the website left threatening and insulting messages, saying they wanted to “pound your head in with an ice pick” and declaring the boy “wanted dead or alive.”

“The students who posted the threats sought to destroy D.C.’s life, threatened to murder him, and wanted to drive him out of Harvard-Westlake and the community in which he lived,” the appeals court concluded in denying the motion to dismiss the lawsuit brought by one of the defendants on the grounds that the postings amounted to constitutionally protected speech on a public issue.

D.C.’s parents withdrew him from the school and moved to Northern California after Los Angeles Police Department detectives and the district attorney’s office declined to pursue charges against the students, saying their “annoying and immature Internet communications did not meet the criteria for criminal prosecution.”

Although the appeals court’s divided ruling on Monday addressed only the question of whether the postings were free speech, not whether they amounted to a hate crime, legal analysts said the decision sends a warning signal that there are boundaries even on the Internet.

“It’s very important that the court here is recognizing the real harm and power of anti-gay speech that has become very common in cyber-bullying and in schools,” said Douglas NeJaime, a Loyola Law School professor and expert in sexual-orientation law.


“The decision marks a move away from a previous time when anti-gay jokes or even threats were seen as just part of normal interactions, especially between teenage boys,” said Nan Hunter, a UCLA law professor who teaches and writes on sexuality in the law.

The appellate court ruling also appeared to toughen standards for court intervention in cyber-bullying cases.

Last year, a federal judge ruled that a Beverly Hills junior high school went too far in suspending a student for posting a video on YouTube calling an eighth-grade classmate “spoiled” and “a slut.”

“The court cannot uphold school discipline of student speech simply because young persons are unpredictable or immature, or because, in general, teenagers are emotionally fragile and may often fight over hurtful comments,” U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson wrote in a 60-page opinion in the Beverly Hills case.