FIRST AMENDMENT GROUPS WARN N.J. ATTORNEY GENERAL OF BROAD ’CYBERBULLYING’ DEFINITION
November 10‚ 2008
NEW JERSEY — Free speech advocates sent a statement of concern to the New Jersey State Attorney General urging caution in a policy initiative to prevent cyberbullying on college campuses statewide.
An Aug. 26 letter and press release by State Attorney General Anne Milgram to every New Jersey college and university asked each institution’s president to check that their school’s policies “incorporate the topic of cyber-harassment‚ which includes stalking‚ bullying‚ and/or sexual exploitation‚ into your school’s code of conduct‚ with consequences for those who engage in these activities.”
Milgram’s request to instill punishment on college-aged adults partaking in cyberbullying is a first for the United States. Most punishments nationwide for the problem have usually occurred in the elementary‚ middle‚ and high school levels.
Her letter was an outgrowth of a consumer fraud investigation of the controversial and popular college Web site JuicyCampus.com. The site allows anonymous posting by users who have sometimes written insulting personal remarks about specific students on their campuses. Topics discussed on the site range from the smallest trivia to discussion of alleged sexual experiences with named individuals.
In response to Milgram’s initiative‚ three groups that advocate for the protection of First Amendment rights — the Student Press Law Center (SPLC)‚ the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education‚ and the New Jersey chapter of Society of Professional Journalists (NJSPJ) — sent a letter cautioning of the possible unintended consequences of broad speech restrictions.
In the letter‚ the groups acknowledge speech that is not protected by the First Amendment but warn that prohibiting harmless speech under the undefined legal term “bullying” could cause constitutional problems.
“An open-ended directive that colleges enact codes of conduct that punish the use of computers for ’bullying’ will invariably cause some administrators to penalize lawful speech that falls within the protection of the First Amendment‚” the groups wrote. “There is a difference — qualitatively‚ and constitutionally — between speech that threatens versus that which merely causes hurt feelings.”
David Wald‚ a spokesman for the New Jersey Attorney General’s office‚ said personal information like college students’ dorm room addresses and phone numbers was part of the reason Milgram wrote the letter to college and university presidents.
“That’s part of it and of course things that are malicious and just wrong‚” Wald said. “Those are the things we worry about when people abuse the Internet.”
Wald said Milgram intended on speaking with the New Jersey President’s Council to address her concern for a cyber-bullying policy to be enforced at their colleges or universities on Nov. 17 at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. But‚ an official for the NJPC said the Attorney General intends on speaking to “every vice president of student affairs” at a private meeting not intended for the public on Nov.…