Utah Law Review
In a tragic case that received international attention, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince killed herself after being bullied—both physically and online—by some of her classmates. Phoebe had moved to Massachusetts from a small town in Ireland, enrolling as a freshman at South Hadley High School. After a brief relationship with a popular boy in the senior class, the taunting by her classmates began. Some students called her an “Irish slut” and a “whore,” knocked things out of her hands, and sent her threatening texts. Some of the students used Facebook and Twitter to speak badly about her. Phoebe suffered this treatment for three months and then hung herself on the stairwell of her home on January 14, 2010. Stories like this led the Massachusetts legislature to create and implement a comprehensive antibullying law.
Phoebe Prince was the victim of bullying and cyberbullying. Bullying refers to “a specific type of aggression in which (1) the behavior is intended to harm or disturb, (2) the behavior occurs repeatedly over time, and (3) there is an imbalance of power, with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one.” The aggression can be verbal (e.g., persistent name-calling), physical (e.g., hitting), or psychological (e.g., spreading humiliating rumors). In differentiating bullying from other forms of harmful behavior, Sameer Hinduja and Justin W. Patchin, observe the following distinctions:
• When someone says or does something unintentionally hurtful and they do it once, that’s rude.
• When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they do it once, that’s mean.
• When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they keep doing it—even when you tell them to stop or show them that you’re upset—that’s bullying.
Cyberbullying is similar to traditional bullying, but it involves the use of electronic devices and social media platforms to commit this intentional and repeated aggression—namely verbal and psychological attacks—against weaker victims. For reasons I give in this Article, cyberbullying has some unique characteristics that make it much more dangerous than offline bullying. Indeed, cyberbullying is so harmful that it should be given diminished First Amendment protection as schools seek ways to regulate it.