Cyber Bullying Versus Freedom of Speech

Untitled-1Where is the line between freedom of speech and prevention of online bullying for college students? This is one of the toughest lines to toe as universities want to create a safe environment for students but encourage students to express views on often controversial subjects.

Montclair University graduate student Joseph Aziz made a comment regarding another student’s appearance on YouTube and then was told by the university to have no further contact with the other student. He then posted about the incident on Facebook and the school suspended him. He challenged the suspension and last week the university reinstated Aziz. This brings the question: Do universities have the right to regulate student behavior on social networking sites?

Dr. Michele Grillo, assistant professor in criminal justice, thinks that the University went too far in this matter. Grillos said, “It is contrary to the encouragement of free thought and academic growth of individuals. Students speak out all the time about their likes and dislikes of college professors and administration on a daily basis in various ways. We do not restrict this speech.”

Junior political science major Adrian Palaia believes the student was out of line with his remarks. “This Montclair student was interfering with the legitimate educational and disciplinary objectives of other students with an air of malice, therefore is completely under the subjugation of the school’s punishment and not protected by freedom of speech,” said Palaia.

Senior business student Brianne Giordano believes it is sad that this issue isn’t being taken more seriously.

Giordano said, “I think it’s a disgrace that people are attempting to defend outright bullying under the U.S. Constitution, and I think it’s a bigger disgrace that people are buying into that feeble excuse. America places more importance on being politically correct rather than being morally correct.

Giordano continued, “God forbid we punish someone for saying something blatantly hurtful and demeaning because if we punish them it might hurt THEIR feelings or be demeaning to them. Giordano also states that just because you can say it doesn’t mean you should say it.

“You think people would finally grasp that after such notorious incidents as the horribly unfortunate cases involving Megan Meier and Tyler Clementi, but apparently even that is not enough. People also fail to realize, specifically with things that take place online, that yes, you can essentially do anything or say anything you want, nothing is stopping you, BUT you have to be held accountable for the consequences of the actions you chose,” said Giordano.

Jessica Rossi, sophomore communication major, said, “Having the right to freedom of speech doesn’t give you the right to harass innocent people. If you wouldn’t say it to their face, you shouldn’t say it online.”

Vice President of Student Services Mary Anne Nagy said that the University does not patrol social media sites unless there is a specific complaint. “We are not in a position nor do we want to be where we are going online and look for stuff through Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin.”

Nagy continues, “If someone comes to us and says ‘I’ve had an experience’ or ‘This is what I have observed’ then we will look into it.”

Nagy believes these types of situations are about education. “Sometimes a written warning or a verbal conversation is more impactful than suspension. Sometimes community service is helpful as well.” However Nagy states that bullying of any kind, online or in person, does not have a place on a college campus.

Communication professor Mary Harris agrees with Nagy. “I think one of the best ways that schools can combat online bullying is by doing what they do best - educating. Education for students, parents, and teachers is an essential step toward getting everyone on the same page and hopefully exploring the topic in a positive manner and bringing important facts to light, such as how to handle different types of online bullying situations and how can these scenarios hopefully is prevented. Mentor programs for students would also be excellent, and I think it would be great to encourage peerto- peer support,” said Harris.

Grillo believes the situation is tough to deal with especially with new media. “Freedom of speech is challenged in general by the advancement of new age media. Social media sites, such as Facebook, Myspace, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. make it extremely easy for individuals to communicate and express themselves. Because people do not need to post a picture nor use a real name online, it is often difficult to regulate online speech. Furthermore, social media simply provides another outlet for people in general to “vent” about all kinds of issues. Determining what constitutes cyber bullying is a gray area,” said Grillo.

Dr. Don Swanson, communication professor, said that this social media research done by institutions is not limited to colleges. “Some companies hire outside companies to check prospective employees’ social media sites,” said Swanson.

However, Grillo believes that there is no clear definition of cyber bullying so doing any disciplinary actions is difficult. “Until there is a clear definition, Universities are left to determine on their own what constitutes cyber bullying and the monitoring of their Internet infrastructure. We are now seeing universities updating their Email and Internet usage policy’s across the country to include cyber bullying and other related computer crimes, such as software and music piracy.”

Nagy is of the firm belief that depending on the circumstances, certain online activities could lead to disciplinary actions by the school. “If a threat is made to a student’s health or safety, then it may be appropriate to take action,” said Nagy.

Grillo agrees with Nagy that there is a fine line and if a student is threatened then a school should have the right to take action. “Although one of the main functions of higher learning is to promote free thought and academic growth, there is a line that can be drawn between free speech and a crime. If the activity harms another person, either physically or mentally, or if an individual uses the University’s online infrastructure to commit a crime, then yes, University’s should discipline the perpetrator. Policy needs to be extremely clear and provide detailed definitions of what behavior violates free speech. However, this may be an arduous task at best given the gray area that exists,” Grillo stated.

Shannon Killeen, Assistant Vice President for Student Services, believes that bullying isn’t different whether online or in person. “We should have policies that protect rights of students on or offline, we need to address inappropriate behavior,” said Killeen.

Bullying can lead to both physical and mental scars. Dr. Franca Mancini, director of counseling and psychological services at the University, said, “The effects of bullying will vary depending on the individual, but we often see symptoms of depression, anxiety, anger and frustration, and general feelings of sadness and loneliness in victims. There is a state of worry and feeling helpless, intimidated or threatened without recourse, as well as a sense of vulnerability, embarrassment and shame. Some people experience changes in sleeping and eating patterns. Bullying can have an effect on academics and health as well. More students who are bullied have frequent absences or drop out. The effects of bullying impact self-esteem are far-reaching and often persist into adulthood. In extreme cases, bullying can lead to suicidal ideation, suicide attempts or completed suicides.”

Mancini say that cyber bullying can have different reactions psychologically. “In cyber bullying, information moves quickly and there can be a very wide “audience” in a matter of seconds, with the victim having no way to defend themselves. The bully is also relatively protected by the electronic contact, and since the victim may not be sure who is initiating the contact and will rarely report the bullying to authorities. The extensive use of social media exposes students to more forms of bullying often accompanied by difficulty in being able to verify the person who is the bully. Cyberspace can be a dangerous place for students.”

Nagy commented that staff members of the University receive training in dealing bullying and harassment. She also said that the University does its best to hire staff that is technologically advanced. Also among those trained are residential life employees including residential advisers. Students are encouraged to seek the help of Area Coordinators, Residential advisers, Student Services or Counseling and Psychological Services. However Nagy does say that if any student believes their treatment may be on a criminal level is advised to contact the University Police.

Swanson, however, said, most organizations have regulations on internet usage especially if it is using the company’s or university’s resources such as email system, internet or computers.

Despite this case with the Montclair student not going to court, if a similar case goes before the court, it could have drastic impacts. Something dealing with freedom of speech may, one day, find itself in front of the United States Supreme Court.

Grillo said, “If the USSC (United States Supreme Court) found in favor of academic institutions, students may see their access to the Internet on campus extremely limited, as social media websites may become blocked.

Grillo continues, “Another manner could be that personal computers are banned from use on campus. Thus, the results could be minor to extreme, depending on the case in question. Unfortunately, as incidents occur, new problems arise, and the “announcement effect” takes hold over the public, calling for reform. But how much reform is necessary is the question, and whether entities, including the federal government, have the right to control not only what individuals say, but how and through what venues we say it.