Reconsider the cyberbullying law

Bullying in person and on the Internet is a serious issue but emotion-driven low information legislation won’t serve Oneida County’s children.

Fans of the proposed cyberbullying legislation for Oneida County are so enamored of their bill they prefer to address only their own arguments.

District Attorney Scott McNamara said the law would "withstand appeal, especially First Amendment (free speech) issues." Sheriff Robert Maciol said the ban was proactive, deals with the problem, and would become a tool used by school resource officers.

Neither McNamara nor Maciol addressed our concern that the cyberbullying bill was so vague its sponsors and advocates could be construed guilty of misdemeanors. Finding malice is an opinion, not a fact. Law school students learn that poorly crafted laws that are vague, arbitrary, and subject to ex post facto interpretation make it impossible for citizens to know what is legal and what is not. A well-crafted law would distinguish between teasing and more anti-social behavior.

While Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES Superintendent Howard D. Mettleman thanked the officials on behalf of the school community, he was probably unaware of the fallout from the recently enacted New Jersey law or the surprising results of the latest research.

A New Jersey school administrator criticized the New Jersey anti-bullying law because, like our local proposal, it gives no leeway. Bullying in person or on the Internet by students may be better served as a teachable moment rather than a crime. Besides, other laws punish harassment.

Bill sponsors are also likely unaware of the study by University of Texas at Arlington criminologist Seokjin Jeong who analyzed data collected from 7,000 students from all 50 states. He expected the results to show that anti-bullying programs curb bullying. Instead, he found the opposite. Good intentions led to bad results. Schools without anti-bullying programs had fewer incidents than those pushing deterrence that put a magnifying glass on bullying methods.

Those who see their bill as an easy solution to a complicated problem overlook that democracy is built on the precept that someone may say something that someone else may not wish to hear. Authorities should not be given too much latitude to criminalize persistent criticisms that may simply offend.

For the benefit of the bill sponsors, here is a list of common mistakes on bullying/suicide that the Poynter Institute listed for journalists:

¿ Perpetuating falsehoods through hyperbole or by confusing anecdotes with facts, such as stating that cyberbullying is on the rise or is an epidemic.

¿ Implying that suicide is caused by a single factor, like a romantic breakup, a bad test score or being bullied.

¿ Suggesting, or allowing others to suggest, that bullying is criminal behavior.

¿ Allowing sources to reach beyond their anecdotal experience. Parents, teachers and school administrators are rarely qualified to describe research or trends.

¿ Equating all teenage aggression as bullying, when in fact there is a specific definition that involves sustained behavior and a power imbalance.

¿ Describing an act of suicide in vivid detail so that it creates a contagion effect among vulnerable populations.

¿ Glorifying a suicide victim in saintly or heroic terms, which could also contribute to the spread of suicides.

¿ Forgetting to link to local and national resources about suicide and bullying, including warning signs and strategies for intervention.

For more detail, the Poynter article is available at: http://tinyurl.com/loj6k37.