When We Say “Stop Cyberbullying,” What Are Our Goals?
Being laid up for a week with a nasty tonsil infection gave me the opportunity to catch up on some Sunday NY Times crosswords (Side Note: I refuse to accept that we’re now spelling the word “epilogue” as “epilog,” Mr. Will Shortz), some nerdy SciFi television and some law review articles on cyberharassment. Many esteemed colleagues, not to mention countless law students, are writing about this or related topics in some way. There is indeed much to talk about. But, what does not get as much play are the assumptions upon which much of the results-oriented scholarship is based.
The face-to-face and online harassment of young people, of any sexual orientation, of any gender, of any race, of any socio-economic status, is a bad thing. For the moment, let us put aside those who cling to the antiquated “this is all part of growing up” meme and assume that we all think harassing, attacking and emotionally abusing young people is bad. But, when we are asked to evaluate potential ameliorative responses — harsh punishments, tolerance education, increasing the role of government and a host of other possibilities — it is not enough to simply assume that a problem exists. In order to compare one response against another, we must first engage in a discussion about the values we’re trying to protect over and above solving the problem.
For example, let us assume for the moment that cyberharassment raises only two issues: the speech rights of harassers and the speech rights of victims. If we have to factor into any solution concerns about these stakeholders’ free speech, must we weigh them equally? No. But, then how do we weigh them? Does it matter whose rights? Sure. Those mean harassing kids don’t deserve their rights, only victims do. But, we all know what that kind of reasoning implies. Does it matter that in our example both the perpetrators and victims are students? Do minors even have speech rights (ask Justice Thomas for a resounding “Pfft. Surely you jest!“).
Do we have an adequate basis for finding an answer other than our own personal prejudices? I think we do, but our Internet speech law misses the mark. The legislative history of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (the immunity clause) and judicial opinions in cases like Reno v. ACLU, Ashcroft v. ACLU and Zeran v. AmericaOnline suggest that we determine what to value based on our vision of the Internet user as a modern day “pamphleteer” who can reach out “to a world-wide audience,” and do so “anonymous[ly].” A person like that in an environment like that would value individual autonomy and autonomy-based free speech values more than anything else, devaluing other First Amendment values. That vision of the Internet user and his online experience, however, is simply incorrect. Anonymity as a technical matter does not really exist and social networking platforms like Facebook are making anonymity a thing of the past. And, being a pamphleteer that can reach anyone is a little difficult when all content goes through and can be arranged and censored by intermediaries. This Internet user with this online experience would not only be concerned with individual autonomy above all other things. He would be concerned with his reputation, which can be irreparably damaged by online defamation and misbehavior. And, he would be concerned with getting his voice out there, especially since he is completely dependent upon third parties for access.