The New York Civil Liberties Union today sent a letter urging Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy to reject a new cyberbullying bill because of its significant potential to harm youth and criminalize their constitutionally protected speech, while also failing to reduce bullying. The bill, Local Law F of 2014, imposes criminal sanctions, including prison sentences and fines, on young people for engaging in broad categories of speech online.
“Giving children criminal records for what they say or type does nothing to address the serious issue of bullying and the harm it causes,” said NYCLU Legislative Director Robert Perry, who authored the NYCLU’s letter. “This bill is bad for kids and violates the First Amendment. It takes a positive educational approach, not jail or handcuffs, to teach children how to treat each other with decency and respect. Albany and communities across the state should reject schemes like this for what they are – an attempt to score political points without actually addressing a serious problem.”
The proposed law prohibits broadly defined categories of expression involving minors. For example, under the bill, engaging in offensive gossip on social media could, at the discretion of prosecutors, lead to a young person facing cyberbullying charges punishable by a penalty of up to $1,000 and a prison sentence of up to one year. Young people may also face criminal charges for impulsively texting or commenting on social media about a classmate’s romantic partners, body type or sexual appeal. Posting a photo to Instagram or a YouTube video of a classmate impersonating Miley Cyrus “twerking” at the MTV Awards could potentially give way to a young person being charged with a crime.
The bill also fails to include any measures that experts have identified as successful in reducing bullying, online or otherwise, and the serious harms that it poses. For example, the National School Climate Center has identified ways to reform school climates, mediate disputes and modify student behavior as effective in addressing cyberbullying. The Dignity for All Students Act requires counties to protect public school students from all forms of bullying and harassment by providing school districts with the resources to train educators to effectively identify and address bullying and to adopt curricular that teach children to treat each other respectfully.
“Albany County needs to implement the Dignity Act as a more effective way to deal with bullying,” said Perry.
Albany County legislators hastily introduced the legislation after the New York State Court of Appeals in July struck down another Albany County cyberbullying law for sweeping too broadly and criminalizing protected speech. The case, The People v. Marquan M., was brought by the NYCLU and is important nationally as it is one of the first times any state’s top court took on a law that made it a crime to bully people online. When introducing Local Law F of 2014 after the existing cyberbullying law was struck down, the County Legislature gave little notice to allow public comment before passing the bill and expediting it to the County Executive for approval.