SPLC urges protection for student rights in Delaware 'cyberbullying' policy

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Beverly Keneagy 904.626.0017 / bkeneagy@splc.org

In testimony regarding the regulation of online “bullying” speech, the Student Press Law Center urged Delaware policymakers Friday to affirmatively protect students’ rights to discuss matters of public concern, and to develop preventive education-based solutions based on journalistic values and ethics.

“Online incivility is a genuine and serious societal problem – one that afflicts all age groups, not just schoolchildren – and it requires a societal response much more sophisticated than ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key,’” SPLC Executive Director Frank D. LoMonte said in written testimony submitted Friday to Delaware Lt. Gov. Matthew Denn and Attorney General Beau Biden. “Empowering principals to muzzle student whistleblowers who wish to call public attention to the shortcomings of schools will be affirmatively counterproductive to the goal of school safety.”

Denn and Biden completed a series of statewide hearings this week to gather public input about “cyberbullying” as part of formulating a state-level response to complaints about students’ hurtful speech on social networking sites. LoMonte testified Wednesday at the last of the hearings at the Kent County Courthouse in Dover. 

In his written remarks, LoMonte urged the lieutenant governor and attorney general to fashion a statewide policy that gives heightened protection to students’ off-campus speech, because students so frequently are censored on campus when they attempt to question school policies or voice an opinion about their schools’ shortcomings.

“It is one thing to say that school administrators may exercise broad authority over speech that students intentionally direct at a captive audience of in-school listeners during the school day. It is quite another thing to say that administrators have equal control over everything that a student says or does that might impact the school,” LoMonte said.

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) is a Washington, D.C.-area non-profit whose mission is to advocate for free-press rights for high school and college journalists. It also provides legal information and attorney referral assistance at no charge to students and the educators who work with them.  

The SPLC has appeared as a friend-of-the-court in support of disciplined student speakers in many court cases in the federal Third Circuit, which includes Delaware. Among them are Layshock v. Hermitage School District and J.S. v. Blue Mountain School District, in which the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided in 2011 that students could not be punished for speech created off-campus and posted on the MySpace social networking site that ridiculed their school principals.

On Thursday, the Delaware Senate passed and sent to the House SB 193 by Sen. David P. Sokola, D-Newark. The bill requires every public school district to enact a cyberbullying policy implementing the statewide policy that the Delaware Department of Education will release based on Benn’s and Biden’s recommendations. It also provides that Biden’s office, the Delaware Department of Justice, will offer legal representation to any school district that is sued because of its use of the state cyberbullying guidelines.

LoMonte said Delaware has the chance to avoid the mistakes made by other states that hastily imposed new punitive responses to cyberbullying in the emotional aftermath of highly publicized student suicides. Because punishment for unkind remarks runs such a high risk of “false positive” discipline for innocent speech, LoMonte said Delaware should instead focus on a preventive approach that teaches “best practices” in digital citizenship.

“Every school should offer as a foundational part of its core curriculum a course in the consumption (‘news literacy’) and creation of media,” LoMonte said. “Making good online citizenship a routine part of the school day is far more impactful than summoning students to an assembly to be finger-wagged about cyberbullying, which is guaranteed to shut off the ‘attention’ switch.”