North Carolina: Make Fun of a Teacher, Go to Jail

Takepart.com

If North Carolina high school students bully a teacher online, they will pay the price.

On December 1, a law went into effect that expands the state’s anti-cyberbullying statute to protect the state's educators.

Under the School Violence Prevention Act of 2012, students will be reprimanded if they make any statement—true or false—that could provoke others to stalk or harass teachers or school employees. Students will also be severely punished if they target school administration by building a fake online profile or website, tamper with their online data or accounts, sign them up to a pornographic website or post private, personal, or sexual information. 

The penalties aren’t a slap on the wrist either. If caught, a student could face criminal charges, stay up to 60 days in jail, and face a $1,000 fine.

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While it may seek to protect teachers from harassment, critics have called the first-of-its-kind law vague and draconian. The North Carolina ACLU opposes the law and says that it creates a dangerous precedent.

“This law is so vague that it could easily result in a student being arrested simply for posting something on the Internet that a school official finds offensive,” said North Carolina ACLU Policy Director Sarah Preston in a statement on their website. “Young people should not be taught that they will be punished for telling the truth, speaking freely, or questioning authority—yet that is exactly what could happen under this law.”

The ACLU points out that a student could be charged under the law for objecting to a decision by school administrators or simply by posting on a message board that says they are “tired” of a certain teacher.

The bill was sponsored by Republican state Senator Tommy Tucker at the urging of the Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina.

Tucker said at the time of the bill’s passage that teachers need protection too.

“On the Internet, if it’s in print, a lot of times people accept it as the truth,” Tucker told the Charlotte Observer. “Certainly if you put something in print that could damage the reputation and character of a teacher then there should be some sort of penalty.”

But that penalty may be too strong. Billie Murray, an assistant professor of communication at Villanova University who specializes in free speech issues, said that while cyberbullying is a serious problem, addressing the issue requires careful balance.

“Concerns about free speech complicate this issue, and justifiably so,” she said in an interview. “Laws that limit people’s ability to speak freely, and truthfully, must be carefully considered, with the costs of these limitations paramount in the considerations.”

Murray says that her biggest concern with the law as it currently stands is that “it seems to be unfairly directed to students or young people.”

Julie Hilden, a columnist for the website Justia, wrote that “teachers have recourse to solutions and resources that are out of the reach of students, and for that reasons, the law should not treat them in the same way.”

The bill’s vagueness combined with the fact that a student can't make a truthful albeit provocative statement about a teacher means that the state is on shaky ground under the First Amendment. It could end up challenged in court by the ACLU.

“If it is okay to criminalize students who criticize teachers online, what is to stop the government from making it illegal for any one of us to criticize some other government official, like the city council or state legislature, whether the comments are made online or not?” the ACLU’s Preston said. “We urge any student charged under this misguided law to contact our office immediately.”

Do you think students should face jail time if they harass a teacher online? Share your thoughts in comments.

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Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist whose work frequently appears in The Washington Post and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the author of two books. @SuziParker | TakePart.com 

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