In a victory for free speech, the New York State Court of Appeals today struck down Albany County’s cyberbullying law, finding that it sweeps too broadly and criminalizes protected speech. The decision is important nationally as it is one of the first times any state’s highest court has taken on a law that makes it a crime to bully people online, ordinances that are becoming increasingly popular and overwhelmingly target children.

The decision was issued in The People v. Marquan M., in which the New York Civil Liberties Union challenging a 2010 Albany County law that makes it a crime to communicate “private, personal, false, or sexual information,” intended to “harass, annoy, threaten, abuse, taunt, intimidate, torment, humiliate, or otherwise inflict significant emotional harm on another person.” The first person to be charged with violating the law was a 15-year-old high school student, Marquan M.

“Cyberbullying is a serious concern that all communities must confront, but there are better and more constructive ways to address the problem than giving children criminal records,” said NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton, lead counsel on the case. “Communities across New York and the nation should take note that criminalizing First Amendment activity is unlawful and does nothing to address the causes of bullying or prevent it from taking place.”

Since 2012, New York State has been required to follow the Dignity for All Students Act, a law that protects public school students from all forms of bullying and harassment for any reason, including a student’s race, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion, religious practice, weight, disability, sexual orientation, gender or sex and requires annual reporting on incidents of harassment to the State Education Department. The Dignity Act requires school districts to train educators to effectively identify and address bullying and school districts to adopt curricular that teach children to treat each other respectfully.

“The solution to cyberbullying isn’t criminalizing children’s speech,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “New York needs to follow the Dignity Act and find other constructive ways to deal with bullying. Arresting children for what they say or write won’t create safe, nurturing schools. It takes a positive educational approach, not jail or handcuffs, to teach children how to treat each other with decency and respect.”