By Matthew Chayes at Newsday
Rep. Kathleen Rice on Saturday touted an anti-cyberbullying bill that backers call necessary to combat modern-day harassment but opponents fear would threaten constitutionally protected speech.
Named for a gay college student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge in 2010 soon after his roommate streamed via webcam a dorm-room hookup with another man, the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act would require campuses to enact anti-harassment policies covering a range of personal characteristics and electronic devices.
“The laws have got to catch up with technology,” said Rice. “In order to get justice for victims and prevent cyberbullying, we have to be able to hold the perpetrators — ’cause that’s what they are, right? — accountable for their actions.”
Rice (D-Garden City), a bill sponsor, embraced Clementi’s parents, Joseph and Jane Clementi, who also spoke at the weekend cyberbullying summit at New York Law School in Manhattan that Rice keynoted.
“Sometimes, if you can’t sway [someone] with a carrot, you need to have a stick, and the law, unfortunately, is that stick, is that line in the sand — with what is acceptable and what is not acceptable,” said Jane Clementi, whose family set up a foundation to combat bullying after their youngest son’s death.
Tyler Clementi’s roommate in the Rutgers dorm, Dharun Ravi, was convicted of all 15 counts against him in connection with the live-stream and tweets about capturing Clementi “making out with a dude” after the teen’s suicide. Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail, and the case is on appeal.
Ann Bartow, a University of New Hampshire law professor, said “the idea of the law is terrific” and she’s heartened that it explicitly covers harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity
Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the law’s goals were admirable but it troubled free speech advocates by departing from a U.S. Supreme Court definition requiring student-on-student harassment be “objectively offensive” — not just offensive in the accuser’s mind.
“It subjects speech to whoever the most sensitive person might be on campus,” said Shibley, whose Philadelphia-based group has defended such speakers as a student newspaper publishing an editorial questioning the Black Lives Matter movement and a college professor who tweeted in favor of the Palestinian cause and saw his job offer rescinded.
“In a free society,” Shibley said, “with as many disagreements as we have, we have to be prepared for people to call one another names.”