Georgia GOP leaders say state crackdown on cyberbullying a top legislative priority in 2024
Georgia’s GOP leadership says fighting against cyberbullying will be a top priority when the Legislature convenes in January.
Sen. Jason Anavitarte, a Dallas Republican, said he plans to file a bill to tackle the issue, but he said the specifics of the plan are not yet hammered down.
“This legislation, when we introduce it, is going to be modeled after some similar states like Louisiana,” he said. “There are some bad examples out there that we won’t be copying because we do want to be sensitive to the First Amendment protection for citizens across the state.”
Louisiana’s law defines cyberbullying as “the transmission of any electronic textual, visual, written, or oral communication with the malicious and willful intent to coerce, abuse, torment, or intimidate a person under the age of eighteen,” and proscribes a fine of up to $500, a sentence of up to six months or both.
Anavitarte did not point to any specific states as bad examples, but in 2014, New York’s highest court threw out a cyberbullying law on First Amendment grounds, and attempts to eliminate cyberbullying in other states have faced similar hurdles.
“There’s going to be teeth within the legislation itself,” said Lt. Gov. Burt Jones, who joined Anavitarte at a Capitol press conference Monday to introduce the planned bill. “That’s not going to be limited to school districts, it’s going to have teeth in it where the people perpetrating these things, we’re going to try to hold them accountable.”
Jones said legislators will partner with school systems and social media companies to craft the bill.
Some free speech advocates say schools or districts interfering with a student’s off-campus speech violates the First Amendment.
In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Pennsylvania high school student on free speech grounds who was suspended from the cheerleading team after making a profane social media post criticizing her school.
But the justices wrote that schools’ ability to regulate student speech “do not always disappear when that speech takes place off campus,” and listed “serious or severe bullying or harassment targeting particular individuals” as a circumstance in which schools may implement regulation or punishment, even if it takes place off campus, if the speech could cause a disruption on campus.
Parents and victims say cyberbullying can be more pernicious than traditional bullying because it is not limited to school hours, the anonymity of the internet can spur bullies to be more vicious than they would be in person and victims may not even know who is tormenting them. Widespread adoption of social media among tweens and teens has meant bullies can spread mean messages to much wider audiences than schoolground taunts.
In a study published earlier this year, the Cyberbullying Research Center found that in 2021, 23.2 percent of 13- to 17-year olds nationwide reported experiencing cyberbullying within the previous 30 days, up from 17.2 percent in 2019 and 16.7 percent in 2016.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Recorder.