Free speech, sophomoric pranks, or criminal offense?

The Christian Science Monitor ran an interesting piece Monday on increasingly severe penalties for online harassment and defamation of school staff by students. As the article points out, students have harassed teachers since kids had teachers to harass.

The Christian Science Monitor ran an interesting piece Monday on increasingly severe penalties for online harassment and defamation of school staff by students. As the article points out, students have harassed teachers since kids had teachers to harass. However, administrators and teachers are concerned about the highly public and potentially threatening nature of the harassment now taking place via the Internet.

"Kids have been pulling pranks on teachers and principals since there have been schools in the US, but now there's an edge to it – the tone and tenor of some of these attacks cross the line," says Nora Carr, a spokeswoman for Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina.

Who determines where that line is, though? In North Carolina, the line is remarkably wide:

North Carolina's cyberstalking law makes it illegal to electronically communicate false statements about "indecent conduct or criminal conduct ... with the intent to abuse, annoy, threaten, terrify, harass or embarrass."

Courts have ruled that students may be held responsible for actions off campus if it substantially interferes with a teacher's ability to conduct a class. Does "annoying" substantially interfere?

The line between free speech, run-of-the-mill pranks, and dangerous or genuinely harmful conduct is certainly being tested as students live more of their lives online and share those lives with anyone willing to glance at their MySpace.

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