For the first time, a U.S. court has weighed the constitutionality of a local law against cyberbullying -- and the parents of gay cyberbullying victim Tyler Clementi are are expressing concern that the ruling will leave young people vulnerable.
The New York Court of Appeals Tuesday struck down a county statute that had banned "electronic communication intended to harass, annoy, threaten … or otherwise inflict significant emotional harm on another person," reports Reuters.
Writing for the 5-2 majority , Judge Victoria Graffeo described the law as "overbroad" in its criminalization of a "spectrum of speech outside the popular understanding of cyberbullying."
The case revolved around the 2011 arrest of a high school student in Albany County who had created a Facebook page where he anonymously posted pictures of classmates with personal information and descriptions of their sexual activities. He pleaded guilty to one count of cyberbullying on the condition that he could challenge the law's constitutionality; with the law struck down, he is now cleared of the charge.
The decision comes as a surprise and disappointment to many cyberbullying victims and their families, including Tyler Clementi's parents, Jane and Joseph Clementi. In a statement released yesterday, the couple said they agree with the dissenting opinion, which argued that limiting the law to a focus on children and deleting vague terms would keep its intent and constitutionality intact.
The Clementis' personal stake in the issue stems from the 2010 suicide of their gay son, Tyler, then an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University. Days before leaping from the George Washington Bridge, Clementi had learned that his roommate Dharun Ravi had secretly used a webcam to spy on Clementi in a romantic encounter with another man.
Many speculated that this contributed to Clementi's suicide. Ravi was eventually convicted of invasion of privacy, bias crimes, and hindering prosecution, but the Clementi family decided not to pursue a civil suit against him.
In the months that followed, anti-LGBT and cyber-based harassment received immense national attention and saw Jane and Joseph Clementi founding the Tyler Clementi Foundation to use research and education to help eliminate cyberbullying.
"In our work against cyberbullying, we are seeing the great pain and permanent emotional harm that cyberbullying causes children," the Clementis stated in response to the New York Court of Appeals' decision. "This is why we strongly support legislation and legal action aimed at eliminating cyber aggression aimed at young people -- the most vulnerable in the online space."
In the wake of the decision, Albany County lawmakers are working to craft a new cyberbullying law.