What to do when memes get out of hand? Sue.
According to the Associated Press, a father is using a new law created to sue his son’s classmates for starting rumors that his son was going to shoot up his public school.
The law was put in place, according to the David’s Legacy Foundation, in order to prevent cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is difficult for schools to stop because it can occur off campus and at non-school related events. This case will provide a precedent for how the legal system will interact with the fast-paced world of the Internet, especially with regards to freedom of speech.
The suit alleges that classmates of the father’s child maliciously created rumors on Facebook that he was going to shoot up the school. Although the school decided that the rumors were not credible, the student was ordered to attend an alternative school program when he joked about it and his classmates overheard.
The father’s suit specifically targets the classmates who started the rumors, although it alleges that the school did not provide the necessary counseling and anti-bullying resources which are ordered under David’s Law.
Although it will be a while until the results are in, David’s Law is an attempt from the Texas legislature to regulate the rapidly moving field of the Internet. The law is called David’s Law in memory of David Molak, a 16-year-old who committed suicide because of cyberbullying. It can often feel as though talking on the Internet is without consequence; however, this case will set a precedent which could potentially curb freedom of speech through civil suits.
The father is asking for a hefty $50,000 from the school and for the students who spread the rumors to have their identities revealed. The student at the center of this rumor has also had to face much in the way of consequences. Rumors about planning a school shooting cannot be easily explained away to college recruiters and employers who will likely look through his social media accounts as part of their acceptance and hiring processes.
Although Texas is not the only state with anti-cyberbullying legislation — almost all states have some — this case is the first which will invoke the law. The decision of this case will have widespread repercussions throughout the US. State judges might use this case as precedent when deciding other cases involving freedom of speech and online harassment.
This case is reminiscent of a more publicized case involving Alex Jones of Infowars in which the parents of Sandy Hook victims sued him for saying that the victims were actors. Although Alex Jones has lied before, this is an incident with clear cut victims — the parents claim that they have received numerous death threats, among other damages — and those parents are calling Jones out with the clear intent of holding him accountable for spreading lies.
The idea that the Internet contains falsehood is not new; we’ve all been told that Wikipedia is not a good source because anyone can edit it. But legislation can move slowly compared to the rapid pace of the Internet. In one month, the Internet goes through multiple memes. Comparatively, the Texas legislature is glacially slow, a characteristic which allows for careful consideration of laws, but not rapid response to problems.
It is also important to balance the principles of free speech alongside protecting students and people. Alex Jones’ statements about Sandy Hook were — in the most charitable interpretation I can muster — ludicrously misguided and thoughtless, and they had a severely negative impact on people who were already going through very difficult times. Whatever sum of money Jones might have to pay the parents will probably be justified. Can the same be said of students who start rumors? They made tasteless jokes in the same vein as bomb threats because the rumors falsely spread information that an attack was being planned. Bomb threats do carry criminal penalties, and for good reason. At best, they waste a lot of time and resources because of necessary precautions that must be taken and, at worst, they are followed by a bomb which can actually kill people.
Should the students be penalized for exercising their free speech on the Internet? The ramifications of what they have done might be too high to leave unpunished. They might have destroyed someone’s ability to have a career, even if that was not their intent. Freedom of speech is deeply important, but the right to free speech is not the right to be reckless with your speech, or at least without penalties. The actual penalties involved, $50,000 and for the names of the creators of the rumor to be made public, might be steep, but the law is certainly working as intended. That’s a good thing.