Cyberbullying – The Ugly Side of Social Media

We have all seen the comical photos of Walmart shoppers in various modes of dress and undress. One performer has even made several humorous music videos depicting the weirdos and crazies.

Facebook itself had its origins by showing photos of college students and allowing people to rate them as “hot or not”. It’s all in good fun, right? No harm, no foul.

So what is going on in Emmitsburg, Maryland, home of the US Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy, where a mother has declared war on cyberbullying after a firefighter posted photos of her daughter on line accompanied by unflattering comments.

Sherry Myers is furious about photos of her daughter Jayden that were posted online by a Pennsylvania firefighter that mocks her shoes, and asks people to guess whether Jayden is a boy or a girl.

It’s the other side of the laughter… the painful side… the ugly side of social media.

Here is a link to Sherry’s Facebook page, which she has aptly named Justice for Jayden. Spend some time there and read some of the comments from those who have been hurt by cyberbullies.

Here is more on the story itself.

While all the facts have yet to be sorted out in the Myers case – let me make a few points about where we are law wise on cyberbullying.

Here in the US, the laws are way behind the times. While some states have enacted laws to address cyberbullying, most states rely upon tort privacy laws developed in the 1800s and 1900s. These laws did a decent job until fairly recently. Today they are being asked to address an entirely new problem… and it may be a task they are not up to.

Is it really an entirely new problem? Bullying has always been around and always will be – but when it comes to spreading hurtful information on a massive scale – I say what we are facing is an entirely new problem.

In the late 1800s, how would one go about spreading embarrassing rumors, malicious falsehoods, or even breach a person’s right to privacy on a massive scale? The options were pretty limited and usually required large sums of money to take out newspaper ads, or influence reporters and editors in order to spread a story very far. The spreading of the story would be relatively slow compared with today – and the courts did offer some remedies that could address those mean spirited activities. Newspapers also had to be concerned about such suits and thus had an incentive to do some self-policing of what was published.

The 1900s brought us new means of mass communications through radio and later television. Still these methods of communication were beyond the financial means of most people and the law offered realistic remedies to address any wrongdoing that did occur. Like the newspapers, radio and television stations themselves had good reason to watch what was said out of fear of becoming the target of such a suit.

But what about spreading malicious information in the Internet Age – where virtually anyone can communicate with thousands, even millions, for free and virtually instantly? What about the fact that people who have no financial footprint to speak of can spread malicious information to an unprecedented degree with little to no risk of legal consequences? No self-policing… they are judgment-proof… or close enough to make the cost of a civil suit unrealistic for most people.

How exactly does the law – developed originally to address problems back in the Pony Express days, give Sherry and Jayden Myers some measure of comfort, some justice?

And just as importantly, how do we, as members of the Internet community, draw our own lines about what is and is not fair game when it comes to humor, satire and parody?

The two issues are linked… or at least they should be.

Can we protect Jayden and still have our funny Walmart photos? Is there a line that can be drawn that makes one OK and the other not?

The law should reflect the ethical choices we as a society believe in.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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