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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Cyberbullying: How to Protect the Innocent

An article in Sunday's Bergen Record details a years-long cyberbullying attack on a now-15-year-old's name and reputation, illustrating the difficulty in catching cyberbullies as well as deterring their malicious activities.

It was one thing to track down the attacker.  It is quite another to define what is legal and illegal activity on the Internet.

The problem with "drawing the line" is the risk of criminalizing perfectly legal expression, even if its target is unwelcome or the expression is embarrassing or even harmful.  Negative opinions are not and never should be a crime. This should be a paramount concern in a society and economy such as ours where the ability to blow the whistle is often the key to protecting the public against terrorists, criminals, predators and unscrupulous business owners.

If anti-cyberbullying laws are not crafted correctly with these concerns in mind, these laws will become a shield for criminals and deadbeats who, wishing to avoid the consequences of their actions, can "cry wolf" and brand legitimate whistleblowers, creditors and victims with the new 21st Century version of the scarlet letter -- cyberbully.

In the unfortunate case of the Newark teen, who was using various Internet social media as a young teenager, perhaps this travesty raises a different issue:  Are parents simply not exercising the proper discretion and control over their kids' Internet activities?   Shouldn't we ask parents to do their job first, before we rush to restrict -- and criminalize -- the freedom of expression of other, entirely lawful activities and put the liberty of perfectly innocent people in jeopardy?

Eric Dixon is a New York lawyer who advises businesses, individuals and political organizations on various legal matters including reputation defense, litigation stress management, assertiveness training, damage control and crisis management.  Mr. Dixon is available for further comment at edixon@NYBusinessCounsel.com and by phone at 917-696-2442.


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