Discerning free speech from bullying in the social network

Monday, August 12th, 2013

CyberParent Power Topic of the Week

Ron Severson, Deputy Superintendent, Roseville Joint Union High School District
Photo: http://www.rjuhsd.k12.ca.us

Last week over 300 students at Bear Creek High School in the Lodi School District protested a new anti-bullying policy which could result in getting benched or suspended from participation in sports and other extra curricular activities for inappropriate comments issued via social media that may be considered to be bullying.

According to the KCRA report, the students were protesting the new policy as a violation of their free speech rights because the contract language was vague and referenced use of social media, including tweets, likes and re-tweets, that could be construed as a threat or harmful to another student.

Over the past decade, school districts everywhere have updated policies about student conduct to reflect the free speech challenges of social media.

Ron Severson, Assistant Superintendent of the Roseville Joint Union High School District, explains that their district bully prevention strategy is a comprehensive campus-wide policy that governs academic and extra-curricular activities on and off line. “We updated our anti-bullying policy to include cyber bullying,” Severson said.  “Bullying is bullying, whether it is face to face, written on paper or posted on the web.”

So let’s respond to student protests for their rights to free speech as an excellent opportunity to have a good conversation about rights and responsibilities in a free society.

Three things come to mind.

  • In the social network, free speech and bullying can be easily confused
  • Rights always come with responsibilities
  • Consider value of etiquette for civility, which expresses a culture of respect for the individual

Free speech is not an excuse for bully speech

Lisa Ford Berry, founder of B.R.A.V.E. Society
Photo: Stacey Garrett

The seductive power of cyber communications causes individuals to lose their inhibitions and feel less empathy for the individuals targeted by unkind and hurtful statements.  The network pressure of one-to-many communication also makes it easy to create a new reality for an individual targeted. The harassment is 24X7 and inescapable.

This serious problem is also being addressed at the state level, as SB231, California Bullying Prevention Clearinghouse hotline, goes before the state legislature for appropriations this Wednesday, Aug. 14th. This bill provides for assistance for parents, students and educators dealing with unresolved bully issues on campus (private or public). It was the result of relentless lobbying of Lisa Ford Berry, founder of B.R.A.V.E. Society (bully prevention) in Carmichael, whose youngest son Michael, shot himself in the school bathroom in 2008 on his 17th birthday. He was experiencing cyberbullying so intensely about a cyber-powered rumor that he was gay that he became convinced that the isolation and humiliation were not survivable.

The most insidious aspect of the cyberbully problem is that it is easy for kids to conceal. And too often, victims of bullying are too humiliated to go to parents for help, as was the case with Michael.

Ford Berry’s grief became a cause for action, as she and her husband Rob discovered after his death that all of Michael’s friends and his entire school community had either piled on to the harassment, or remained silent.

17-year-old Michael Berry took his life in 2008 in response to relentless cyberbullying. SB231 is Michael’s bill to create a bully crisis hotline to help people curb the hostility our children are expressing in their cyber powered communities.

“Here is my hurt and pain,” Ford Berry said. “Where were you when my son was pleading for his life?”

Bully, bystander or target, we all have a responsibility to confront disrespect for the individual for what it is: insecurity expressing itself, which can move through a crowd like a wave.  It is a surrender of power to be free from the manipulation of circumstances and the actions of a few.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 2 Corinthians 3:17

Rights and responsibilities

The fact that school districts have to create policies that govern civil conduct on line should give parents pause to consider how we are socializing our children at home.  The reason why school districts have anti-bully policies is because the cyber bully problem is a crisis youth experience every day.

Freedom in a group setting, be it family, neighborhood, campus, team, club or company, always is accompanied by standards of conduct to which the individual is held accountable. And so it is not okay to yell “fire!” in a crowded theater because it puts people in harms way. The panic such a statement would incite could cause people to trample one another with serious and life threatening injuries.

By the same token, those in positions to govern the community also need to be checked that they are not using standards to abuse individuals.

Freedom is indeed a balancing act of rights and responsibilities.

CyberParent Power Tips to promote responsible free speech

The most powerful thing parents can do about bullying and protection of rights to free speech is to help our children understand the difference.

  • Be clear about the meaning of freedom; it is not the same thing as “no limits.”
  • Experiencing and recognizing your feelings does not require you to express them on line – especially when they are negative or focused on an individual
  • Freedom implies responsibility and accountability to not abuse it.
  • Check your own parent motivation. If you are fearful that any school policy that could cause your child to be suspended from a sports team or club activity, examine your own concern first before challenging the campus rule. Do you have confidence in your own child to communicate in respectful ways on and off line? Do you have a handle on the nature of your child’s cyber communications? How often do you monitor the posts and texts?
  • “Like” the things about your child off line, face to face, that express the free agent inside; the free agent that demonstrates the trustworthy character of a courteous, thoughtful and respectful member of your family and society.

Freedom is a balancing act of expressing views, pursuing happiness and exercising personal restraint. Some of the restraint comes from honoring the laws of the land; other restraint comes from standards of civility (such as good manners), listening without interrupting, etc. that make a more pleasant environment for others.

Help your child understand that their personal power to be a free agent is rooted within. It is not based upon what other people say and do.


Joanna Jullien
(Photo: Christi Benz)

Joanna Jullien is an author, educator and speaker on strengthening the parent-child relationship in a cyber powered world. She a mother of two grown sons, the author of The Authority In Me: The Power of Family Life in the Network Culture, produces The Sacramento Cyber Safety Examiner column on Examiner.com, and is the CyberParenting advisor on The Fish 103.9FM, Tuesdays. Her next book, A Google World in the Garden of Eden: Five Family-Safe Strategies for Texting and Social Media will be released in the fall 2013.


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About Joanna Jullien

Joanna Jullien

Joanna (jullien@surewest.net) and her husband have raised two sons in Roseville, CA. She has a degree from U.C. Berkeley in Social Anthropology (corporate culture). Her honors thesis was awarded the Kroeber Prize and funding from National Science Foundation grant. Joanna writes to help parents with the modern-day leadership challenges of raising children. She is a contributing writer for The Granite Bay View, the Press Tribune, the Sacramento Examiner, and editor of Banana Moments.