Principals face legal fog in cyber-bullying cases

Liz Goodwin
February 4, 2011

School officials are under increasing pressure to protect students from cyber-bullying but face a legal vacuum on sanctioning students for online comments, EdWeek's Michelle R. Davis writes.

In 2007 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a principal who suspended a student for posting a banner across the street from the school that read "BONG HITS 4 JESUS." The court argued that the speech could encourage drug use even if not on school property, and thus the principal could remove it and discipline the student.

But there is no strong precedent upholding a principal's right to discipline a student for online speech made off-campus, even if he or she argues it is affecting student safety on-campus. Upcoming decisions in two cases in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit may finally clear up how far administrators can go to punish online bullying in the future, Davis writes.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has told administrators to quash cyber-bullying, regardless of the legal confusion. "When an administrator chooses not to act, they're saying, 'It's more important for me to protect the district than the student.' That is the wrong set of priorities. They have to understand what's at stake here. Children are dying," Department of Education official Kevin Jennings told Davis. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on schools to "eliminate" bullying last year.

(Memorial message for 17-year-old Alexis Pilkington who committed suicide last year after fellow students posted vicious online comments about her: AP)