New York Moves to Curb Cyberbullying

Legislation to protect students from online harassment will make New York’s antibullying laws among the most comprehensive in the nation, say backers.



As more states look to fight cyberbullying in response to high-profile incidents, the efforts inevitably spark constitutional questions about students’ rights to free speech and expression. O’Donnell said the New York bill relies on language in Doninger v. Niehoff, a case decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2008. The court held that a Connecticut high school student could be barred from running for class office on the basis of a blog post published off campus that harshly criticized school administrators, writing that the post could create a “foreseeable risk of substantial disruption to the work and discipline of the school.”

“The bill is an amendment to Dignity which expands Dignity to include cyberbullying,” said O’Donnell. “What this Dignity bill does is, if reasonably foreseen that it would cause major school disruption, then the schools are permitted to discipline. We define cyberbullying and include cyberbullying within the confines of the Dignity bill.”

Despite a push from at least one Democratic senator, the bill will not impose criminal penalties specifically for cyberbullying. The final legislation is limited to awareness and reporting, which O’Donnell, a former public defender, called the right approach. He argued that the law already provides for penalties if cyberbullying escalates to a criminal level.

“There’s no place for this in the criminal justice system,” he said. “All of the research, all of the experts, say that is the wrong approach. If you assault someone, you assault them. You don’t need to expand that.”

Advocates hailed the passage of the cyberbullying bill, one of a handful of remaining priorities. The most high-profile item, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, failed to advance this session as lawmakers appeared poised to conclude business this week.

"This cyberbullying legislation coupled with the July 1, 2012, implementation of the Dignity for All Students Act are important to creating safe, welcoming learning environments for all students,” said Lynn Faria, interim executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda. “This bill's passage by the Assembly today is another critical step in making sure that students are protected from harm by mandating that all incidents be immediately reported to the school principal for investigation and all students required to learn about safe and responsible use of the internet as part of the school's character education which was created by the Dignity for All Students Act. We encourage the governor to follow the lead of the legislature and immediately sign the bill into law."

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about when the bill would be signed. 

Tags: Politics