New York’s highest court on Tuesday struck down an ordinance in Albany County (New York) which outlaws ‘cyber-bullying’ against ‘any minor or person’. The court called the law an overly broad statute that violates the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.
‘The language of the local law embraces a wide array of applications that prohibit types of protected speech far beyond the cyberbullying of children,’ stated Associate Judge Victoria Graffeo in the 5-2 ruling.
The law made it a crime to electronically communicate ‘private, personal, false, or sexual information,’ intended to ‘harass, annoy, threaten, abuse, taunt, intimidate, torment, humiliate, or otherwise inflict significant emotional harm on another person’ for no legitimate purpose.
It includes disseminating embarrassing or sexually explicit photographs; disseminating private, personal, false or sexual information; and sending ‘hate mail’.
Jane and Joseph Clementi, the parents of Tyler Clementi who killed himself by jumping off a bridge in September 2010, have condemned the court’s decision.
Tyler, who was then 18 and just weeks into his first year at Rutgers University, committed suicide after his roommate Dharun Ravi broadcast the footage of his sexual encounter on the internet. Ravi was convicted year of invasion of privacy, bias intimidation and other counts, and served less than a month in jail.
The Wall Street Journal quoted legal experts as saying that the court’s ruling could set a precedent for other state high courts hearing challenges to such laws, as well as for states and localities considering criminal penalties for cyberbullying.
Besides Albany, four other New York counties and more than a dozen states, including Louisiana and North Carolina, have similar laws.
The case emerged after a high school student in Albany County challenged the law’s constitutionality after he pleaded guilty to one count of cyberbullying on the condition that he could challenge it. The student was arrested in 2011 after creating a Facebook page where he anonymously posted pictures of classmates with personal information and descriptions of their sexual activities. He has now been cleared of the charge.
The Clementis, who have set up the Tyler Clementi Foundation, wrote in a statement: ‘In our work against cyberbullying, we are seeing the great pain and permanent emotional harm that cyberbullying causes children.
‘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 – particularly cyber aggression of a personal or sexual nature.
‘With regard to the recent case in New York, we favour the approach of the dissenting opinion which would have used the well established severance doctrine to remove portions of the law, while leaving in place measures that are crucial to protecting young people online.
‘Cyber bullying is a serious issue that deserves serious, comprehensive action by our courts and legislatures.’