Alabama School Districts Stand Against Cyberbullying and Online Harassment, Urge U.S. Supreme Court to Maintain Order and Safety in Schools

Firm News

Birmingham, Ala., March 3, 2021 – Burr & Forman LLP has been retained to represent the Huntsville, Alabama City Board of Education and eleven other Alabama school districts in calling on the United States Supreme Court to ensure teachers and administrators nationwide have the tools they need to maintain safe and orderly schools. Filing a brief today as amici curiae in the case Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., No. 20-255 (U.S.), in support of a Pennsylvania school system, the Alabama school districts are taking a stand in favor of protecting schools’ abilities to proactively address issues like cyberbullying, cyberstalking and other forms of online harassment.

Faced with social media’s increasing pervasiveness and the rise of virtual learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts across the country, like in Alabama, have been challenged to deal with myriad off-campus harassments of its students, faculty, and administration. Despite further obligation under state laws to protect students from cyberbullying and online harassment, the Alabama school districts argue a recent federal appeals court decision has left schools without the leeway needed to maintain discipline in an era of digital learning and social media.

Without decisive action from the Supreme Court, the brief argues, school officials will be left in a bind in such matters, pitting school safety against the threat of litigation and liability. The Alabama school districts’ brief urges the Supreme Court to hold that school officials are allowed “to punish student speech, whether on-campus or off-campus, that is reasonably likely to lead to a material and substantial disruption of school.” The brief further contends that without a ruling favoring the Mahanoy Area School District, “Schools will sometimes be powerless to address serious disruptions of the school environment, to punish sources of in-school mayhem, and to ensure an orderly environment.”

Fellow school districts, along with several national bullying prevention and awareness organizations, agree schools need to be able to maintain order and discipline regardless of where harassing or otherwise disruptive speech occurs. The Alabama school districts’ brief cites several instances where disruptive online speech upset things at schools across the country, including:

  • Doe ex rel. Doe v. Cavanaugh, 437 F. Supp. 3d 111 (D. Mass. 2020) (derogatory SnapChats about a high school teammate)
  • Fenton ex rel. A.F. v. Kings Park Cent. Sch. Dist., 341 F. Supp. 3d 188 (E.D.N.Y. 2018) (video via text message showing two students “engaged in sexual activity”)
  • Niziolek ex rel. A.N. v. Upper Perkiomen Sch. Dist., 228 F. Supp. 3d 391 (E.D. Pa. 2017) (Instagram video about school shootings)
  • J.W. ex rel. Wilson v. Lee’s Summit R-7 Sch. Dist., 696 F.3d 771 (8th Cir. 2012) (blog post with “offensive and racist comments as well as sexually explicit and degrading comments about particular female classmates”)
  • Evans v. Bayer, 684 F. Supp. 2d 1365 (S.D. Fla. 2010) (Facebook page inviting students to “express your feelings of hatred” about a particular teacher)

A copy of the Alabama school districts’ brief can be found online at this link.

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