OUR VIEW: Teen taunts, ‘cyberbullying’ and free speech

Nhat V. Meyer | San Jose Mercury News/TNS Anthony Sims, 50, comments on a friend’s post to his Facebook page on a public access computer at the Martin Luther King Library in San Jose, California.

Adolescent behavior will carry adult consequences for a young man in Alamance County.

Robert Bishop is saddled with a grownup criminal record because he wrote some things that weren’t very nice while he was a high school sophomore. A unanimous three-judge panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld his conviction on a cyberbullying charge last week.

Bishop taunted Southern Alamance High classmate Dillion Price in a series of Facebook comments from September through December 2011. When Price’s mom learned that the comments were upsetting her son, she contacted the sheriff’s office.

In February 2012, Alamance County deputies arrested Bishop on the cyberbullying charge, alleging in a warrant that he “post(ed) on the Internet private, personal and sexual information” about Price by “commenting on Facebook about his sexual orientation and his intelligence.”

A jury convicted Bishop and Judge G. Wayne Abernathy imposed a suspended 30-day jail sentence and four years’ supervised probation. Bishop appealed the case on First Amendment grounds, arguing that he was punished for constitutionally protected speech and that the state’s cyberbullying statute is vague and overbroad.

While Bishop’s words were hurtful and immature, we agree that the First Amendment should shield him from criminal prosecution. Government is intervening in private personal conflicts where it has no rightful business.

The comments ranged from the vulgar to the nonsensical, but they’re the same kind of boyhood barbs and schoolyard putdowns that can be heard every day in locker rooms, cafeterias and playgrounds.

In a 27-page opinion packed with tortured legal hairsplitting and wholly devoid of common sense, the Court of Appeals declined to strike down the state law on free-speech grounds, citing procedural rules.

“Whether the North Carolina cyberbullying statute prohibits conduct, speech or some combination of the two has not yet been addressed by our appellate courts,” Judge John M. Tyson wrote, explaining that the panel could not consider Bishop’s vagueness challenge because it was not properly raised at trial.

When state lawmakers passed the cyberbullying statute in 2011, groups including the American Civil Liberties Union sounded the alarm. The law is loosely written and can be used to lock up children who criticize classmates and teachers in direct violation of settled First Amendment case law.

If Internet insults are a problem, criminal prosecution is the least reasonable solution. Individuals should seek other avenues to resolve disputes over negative Facebook comments before putting teenagers on trial at taxpayer expense for hurting someone’s feelings.

Why not complain to Facebook and seek to have the offending comments removed for violating the social network’s community standards? As a private business, Facebook is not bound by the Bill of Rights. It can choose to enforce rules of civility and decorum that our state government simply cannot.

In choosing to treat online putdowns differently from spoken slights, North Carolina has waded into constitutional quicksand. As written, the cyberbullying statute cannot be reconciled with the First Amendment. State lawmakers should go back to the drawing board.