Speech rights need protection, even from well-intentioned laws

As the technology has allowed bullying to go from school halls to cyberspace, governments predictably have looked at protecting children from Internet-based harassment.

Yet this is a tough thing to get right, and lawmakers are not always careful to make sure they are protecting people without trampling on their rights.

With that in mind, we applaud the state’s highest court for declaring an Albany County anti-cyberbullying law violates constitutional free-speech protections.

The Court of Appeals ruling concerned the case of a high school student who anonymously posted photographs of fellow students on Facebook, along with personal details and descriptions of their supposed sexual behavior.

The teen was charged with violating a 2010 Albany County anti-cyberbullying law. The law makes it a misdemeanor to post “embarrassing or sexually explicit” photos or “personal, false or sexual information” that is intended to “harass, annoy, threaten, abuse, taunt, intimidate, torment, humiliate, or otherwise inflict significant emotional harm.”

The court ruled that while the teen’s actions were “repulsive and harmful,” the county law is overly broad. In the decision, a judge noted the law could criminalize speech that is not normally considered cyberbullying, such as an email disclosing private information about a corporation.

While a state law prohibiting cyberbullying was passed in 2012, Albany County appears set to rewrite the law to address the court’s concerns.

We hope the county will be more careful about the language in the bill this time.

People should not automatically dismiss laws against cyberbullying as useless or as pointless violations of civil rights. If anything, the opposite is true; because of the prevalence of social media in children’s lives, a well-crafted anti-cyberbullying law can help protect students from harassment and discrimination.

But well-intentioned laws can be taken too far, and rights can unintentionally be trampled by governments trying to help people.

Lawmakers – including those in the local area – need to remember they have to protect the rights of all the people they represent, even those who, at first glance, may seem like bullies.