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The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Monday, October 7, 2013

Cyber-Bully Censorship by Facebook and Teachers

We've all seen the damage a relentless campaign of bullying can do once it takes to the Internet, especially among young students on the ubiquitous Facebook platform.  In some cases, the victims resort to suicide to escape the scathing humiliation.

The Maryland Attorney General and Facebook are teaming-up with educators to put a quick stop to cyber-bullying among students.  This pilot program consists of a dedicated channel, the Educator Escalation Channel, where designated teacher-censors flag objectionable content by transmitting a content-removal report for expedited FB processing.

The program was rolled-out by the Maryland AG in conjunction with recently-passed legislation enhancing the state's Internet harassment crime.  While these coordinated efforts advance the interest of eliminating school-originated cyber-bullying, some legal pundits warn of their potential to stifle free speech in the process.

Commenting for the WSJ's Law Blog, noted Gotham criminal defense lawyer Scott Greenfield remarked that the teacher-censorship program could, "institutionalize a process where the teachers appear capable of making a determination on the value of speech outside the realm of school."  By our calculus here at the Law Blogger, that amounts to government censorship.

Greenfield said it best in his blog post on the anti-cyber-bully initiative:
While Facebook may be a private enterprise, fully entitled to decide what content is acceptable on its platform and similarly entitled to decide that its users will no longer be allowed to write “Suzy is a poo poo head” on the wall, it’s not that simple when the censor is a state actor and the content at issue is deemed offensive not because it violates any law, but because someone is empowered to stifle speech that doesn’t comport with their vision of redeeming societal value, whatever that means.  By doing the bidding of teachers, Facebook becomes the agent of the state.  Not so private anymore.
Neither the Maryland AG nor FB admit that the censorship of objectionable posts comes from the state.  While it may emanate from a state actor [i.e. a teacher], they say it is FB, in conjunction with its published community standards, that will make the final decision.

This program illustrates the tension between our interests in stopping the school yard bully, and avoiding the government censor.  Where do you land on this calculus?  Tell us with a comment.

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