Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina's law banning cybyerbullying unconstitutionally restricts free speech, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The 2009 law "is not narrowly tailored to the State’s asserted interest in protecting children from the harms of online bullying," Justice Robin Hudson wrote in a unanimous opinion.
Under the now defunct law, people could be charged with cyberbullying if they posted a real or doctored photo of a minor "with the intent to intimidate or torment a minor or the minor's parent." The law also prohibits, planting "any statement, whether true or false, tending to provoke or that actually provokes any third party to stalk or harass a minor" and posting "private, personal, or sexual information pertaining to a minor."
The case before the court, North Carolina v. Robert Bishop, involved a pair of Southern Alamance High School students. According to a summary included in the ruling, Bishop was among a number of students posting negative things about classmate Dillon Price online.
"Many of the messages that ensued included comments and accusations about each other’s sexual proclivities, along with name-calling and insults," the summary says.
Price's mother called the police, kicking off an investigation. Bishop was eventually convicted, and the North Carolina Court of Appeals upheld that conviction, saying that the law regulated bullying conduct, which would be allowed, but did not regulate speech.
The Supreme Court disagreed, saying the case was clearly about speech. The law could have stood if it passed a "strict scrutiny test," a legal term used to describe a law that "serves a compelling governmental interest, and that the law is narrowly tailored to effectuate that interest."
North Carolina's cyberbullying law fails that test, Hudson wrote for the court, because someone can commit the crime without the alleged victim suffering harm or even being aware of the posting.
"In addition, as to both the motive of the poster and the content of the posting, the statute sweeps far beyond the State’s legitimate interest in protecting the psychological health of minors," Hudson wrote.
Terms in the law, the ruling says, are poorly defined, and the law did not require the state to prove a perpetrator's motive.
The law, the ruling says, could "criminalize behavior that a robust contemporary society must tolerate because of the First Amendment, even if we do not approve of the behavior."