Texas Proposes 4 Cyberbullying Bills This Legislative Session

Texas Policy Spotlight

Texas legislators have proposed four bills related to cyberbullying this session. Bills contain slight variations in language, with two of the four containing language that establishes harmful cyberbullying as a criminal offense  a Class A misdemeanor to be exact. The bill is to be referred to as “David’s Law,” which is named after David Molak, a 16-year old boy from San Antonio who took his life last January after being bullied and threatened repeatedly by fellow students online.

Cyberbullying has distinct and lasting implications. It is a painful and difficult experience for parents and children because damaging material can remain online indefinitely. Also, children that don’t participate in bullying in person may feel empowered to do so online. Lastly, the entire student body and the world (depending on the platform) can witness a student’s humiliation online, and as long as that material remains online, children can continue to participate in the bullying long after the incident occurred.

Privacy Concerns

Bills that deal with sensitive issues, such as this one, are backed by intense emotions and often lack sufficient forethought and reasoning in spite of everyone’s best intentions. While we do believe cyberbullying is abhorrent behavior, and that there should be serious consequences for such behavior, we believe very specific language needs to be included in these bills to protect privacy.

Data Collection & Retention

We’d like to see more definitions around what, how and when data/communications can be collected from students, and if data is collected, how long it can be retained. Otherwise, these bills could potentially work against the very thing they are trying to protect – the privacy, reputation and innocence of minors for as long as the records are stored.

Monitoring & Surveillance

In an ideal situation, these bill would also include language about monitoring students’ communications. The bills state that, “The board of trustees of each school district and the governing body of each open-enrollment charter school or private school shall adopt a policy, including any necessary procedures, concerning bullying.” The phrase “any necessary procedures” is worrying.

Will kids be monitored online? If so, each school district will surely have different definitions of what constitutes a “red flag” for cyberbullying. And surely this monitoring, just like all types of monitoring by an authority, can become discriminatory, leading to some kids being surveilled more than others. We’d ultimately prefer to see some language prohibiting monitoring and specifying that data can only be collected after an offense has been reported.

First Amendment Rights

Interpretations of communications are always subjective, and it’s often difficult to discern whether or not something is a true threat. There will surely be cases that arise involving communications that can be interpreted in different ways, and lines between cyberbullying and freedom of expression will be fuzzy. Many of us haven’t forgotten the case of Texas teen, Justin Carter, who made a violent statement in an online gaming community while playing League of Nations. Although he immediately stated he was kidding and others in the community understood it as a joke, he was tracked and arrested for making a terroristic threat and spent several months in jail.

According to David Greene, a senior attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, law enforcement would be violating students’ First Amendment rights if they arrest kids for what they write about online. He suggests that what kids need is not more involvement of law enforcement and punitive culture but more involvement from parents, school counselors, and consequences at the school district level.

What We Like about It

A good part of these bills is that they establish specifically what would qualify as bullying under the law. Specific definitions include “threatens bodily injury to child or child’s family; threatens to expose intimate material; urges child to take his or her own life.” Going forward, we’d like to see this kind of specific language for surveillance, data collection and data retention.

cyberbulling-scorecard

Go to our Texas Policy Scorecards page to see how we are rating other bills.