Well, here’s an interesting new angle to the whole topic of cyberbullying and online harassment. The state of North Carolina has passed a law, the School Violence Protection Law of 2012, that criminalizes the online “intimidation” or “torment” of teachers. Interesting concept and, given their ambiguity, interesting words to enshrine into law.

Not that this is necessarily a bad idea. In a very thorough global study spanning 24 countries by the security software company Norton, one in six educators have experienced what the study refers to as “cyberbaiting”, in which students deliberately provoke their teachers until they snap, at which point a video of the ensuing meltdown is posted online. In other words, they are taunted for the sole purpose of getting a filmable reaction. Public humiliation and even false allegations are similarly demoralizing ways in which teachers may be targeted. One example is that of a high school teacher in Tennessee whose extreme meltdown reaction to ongoing provocation was uploaded to YouTube, resulting in his hospitalization and administrative leave. Some of these stories range from the sad to the disturbing. So, although we focus here on youth, it’s worth remembering that bullying can operate in either direction.

However, back to the law’s terminology: words like “intimidate” and “torment” leave a lot of room for interpretation and it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to envisage scenarios in which “problem” students are hammered into such round holes for the sole convenience of the school’s administration. Although breaking the law is considered a criminal misdemeanour, students found guilty could face jail time, so this is far from trivial. Once again, SOLOS believes such draconian measures are counterproductive in most conceivable cases and would prefer to advocate a more proactive and restorative and (ironically, given where this is playing out) educational approach.

The problem here is that once one state drafts such laws, we’re likely to see more do so, and an early attempt to define these terms might have been more helpful. Certainly there are potential free speech concerns here, as the ACLU have pointed out, (here is Sarah Preston, the policy director of the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union on the subject: “We thought the way it was written without definition for the words ‘torment’ and ‘intimidate’ would potentially chill online free speech,”) and although it’s difficult to see a student merely disagreeing with a teacher as contravening these rules, at what point is that student’s vehemence or tenacity within that disagreement deemed “intimidation” or “torment”? Those are some pretty subjective terms, after all.