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Bullying, freedom of speech collide

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Victoria Kim
Los Angeles Times / August 4, 2008

LOS ANGELES - On a sunny May afternoon, teenagers dismissed from a Beverly Hills middle school gathered outside a restaurant four blocks away and gossiped about their friends.

Amid lots of giggling, the conversation among the eighth-graders touched on the prom and limousines but was dominated by an unflattering assessment of a girl at school, who was called a "spoiled brat" and a "slut."

"I don't hate her, it's just, I wouldn't prefer to hang out with her for a million years," one girl declared.

"She thinks she's so pretty, she's so spoiled," another stated.

What might have been just another typical middle school moment became a serious headache for school officials when one of the students uploaded the conversation as a video on YouTube. Because of the Internet posting, Beverly Vista School officials found themselves grappling with their responsibility to ensure a student's well-being and the ambiguous limits of their authority on the Internet.

Citing cyber-bullying concerns, school administrators suspended for two days the student who uploaded the video, without disciplining others in the recording. The suspended student sued the school district in June in federal district court in Los Angeles, saying her free speech rights were violated.

"The speech for which plaintiff was punished was not 'student speech' at all and cannot be regulated or controlled by defendants," attorneys wrote in the suit.

Sarah Kaatz, a Monterey-based attorney who represents and counsels school districts, said she receives two or three queries a month from confused and frustrated school administrators seeking legal advice on such matters.

"School districts are between a rock and a hard place on this issue," Kaatz said.

In an Idaho case, for example, parents sued a school district over its failure to intervene in their daughter's harassment, which included, among other things, spreading photos and rumors on the Internet about the girl's sexual orientation.

The court sided with the school, saying officials did not have "substantial control" over the dissemination of the photos.

As computer, video, and cellphone use among students has increased in recent years, so have allegations of cyber-bullying.

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