An Unfortunate Strategy: Civil Rights Charges in the Phoebe Prince Case
On January 14, 2010, a 15-year old named Phoebe Prince hung herself after facing bullying by a group of students at her Massachusetts high school. As Emily Bazelon reported in a series for Slate, Prince was a troubled teen long before her suicide. While a student at an Irish boarding school in 2008, she engaged in self-mutilation, leading to medical treatment. After her parents separated in 2009, Prince moved with her mother and sister to the United States where she continued to cut herself and struggle with depression. Although Prince initially flourished at her new high school, she suffered cruel taunts by students after she dated two male students. Facts about the bullying have emerged: students wrote on Facebook and Twitter that Prince was a “gross whore” and “Irish slut;” a student called Prince a “whore” in the cafeteria and told her to “stay away from other people’s men;” group members threatened to beat Prince up; a student spat at Prince and told her to “close her legs;” Prince’s cell phone number became public knowledge and she received countless abusive texts. On the day that Prince committed suicide, several of the students threw a beverage can at Prince as she walked home from school. Six students face criminal charges, including harassment, stalking, and a “violation of civil rights, with bodily injury resulting.”
The case has sparked a national conversation about the destructive nature of online and offline bullying. Massachusetts legislators have passed a comprehensive bullying law, which some hail as a model for other states to follow. Discussion of the Prince case has centered on whether the facts warrant criminal charges. Some perceive the case as involving a predictable, though regrettable, schoolyard fight while others characterize the defendants as evildoers who drove Prince to suicide.
Worth discussing is the impact that the civil rights charge will have on the case and the public’s view of a civil rights agenda more generally. The civil rights charge, a felony, can result in punishment of up to ten years in prison. Jurors will have to determine if the defendants interfered with Prince’s education — by threatening her with physical harm and by causing her severe emotional distress — because of her gender and nationality resulting in bodily injury. Convictions on the civil rights charges may, however, have unintended consequences. As I explored in Law’s Epxressive Value in Combating Cyber Gender Harassment, it has been a significant struggle to convince the public that harassment of the vulnerable, both online and offline, can inflict grievous individual and societal harm. This case could undermine that struggle. Because so many view this case as just involving the rough and tumble of high school and because Prince has a history of mental illness that casts doubt on the notion that the bullying caused her suicide, the public might loudly decry convictions on the civil rights charges as going too far. If the students were subject to lengthy prison sentences, the case could engender resentment, leading to pressure on prosecutors to leave harassment cases alone and discouraging victims of discriminatory harassment to file charges. It is worth considering whether the prosecutor’s dropping the charges would be a positive development in the long-term battle against cyber civil rights violations.