Last week, two teens took their own lives as a direct result of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is when a minor is “tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed, or otherwise targeted by another [minor] using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies, or mobile phones.” It is always unfortunate when a troubled teen takes his or her life, and it is even more unbearable to know that death was the direct result of mean words from peers.
Often, social media websites are the platform for these unthinkable phrases because they allow a forum for many to chime in from the safety of their own homes. We all know that kids can be cruel, and social media gives them a safe outlet to express things they might not otherwise say face-to-face. In a recent cyberbullying case, a defendant stated that he was so inspired by the other hurtful comments aimed at one of his peers such that he wanted to “one up” them with a more gruesome statement. In our legal system, however, simply being mean is not a crime.
One court is trying to change that. Just recently a California appeals court held that online threats of violence are not protected free speech, and therefore cyberbullying cases can proceed as hate crimes. This is important because hate crimes, as they violate constitutional free speech protection, and carry much heavier penalties and social stigmas.
Regardless of the speaker’s liability, however, social media websites cannot be held liable for the posting of this “hate speech.” Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, providers of an “interactive computer service” who publish information provided by others are immune from liability for words spoken by others using the service. The reason for this is twofold. First, it obviously wouldn’t be fair to hold a website accountable for a defamatory or illegal statement made by a third party through their service. Simply displaying the statement shouldn’t qualify the website as a speaker of those words such that liability would attach. The second reason is much more important, and that’s free speech. If social media websites could be liable for words spoken by third parties, it would create a “chilling effect” on speech because they would try to proactively censor statements before they are posted. It would then become a difference of opinion as to what should and shouldn’t be allowed and the freedom to speak would be at the site’s mercy.
Allowing these cases to proceed as hate crimes is a step in the right direction. It does not seem fair that neither the websites nor the third parties using them be held liable for the bullying and tormenting that drives teens to take their own lives. Hopefully other courts will follow up with the solution to this terrible problem before more suicides occur.