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Court of Appeals dumps Albany County cyberbullying law

July 1, 2014
Updated 9:47 p.m.
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— Albany County officials said Tuesday they intend to work to pass revised, more narrowly focused legislation on cyberbullying after the state’s highest court struck down the county’s previous law, finding it too broad and infringing on free speech.

The Court of Appeals ruled in a case involving a Cohoes teenager charged under the cyberbullying statute with posting sexual details about classmates on Facebook. In a 5-2 ruling, the high court found the Albany County law as written to be invalid, covering areas beyond its original intent to protect children.

The majority wrote there “is undoubtedly general consensus” that the teen’s online writings were “repulsive and harmful” to his targets, but the law covered too much territory.

“Although the First Amendment may not give defendant the right to engage in these activities, the text of Albany County’s law envelops far more than acts of cyberbullying against children by criminalizing a variety of constitutionally protected modes of expression,” the majority opinion reads.

The opinion left open the possibility of a more-narrowly crafted law that specifically addresses cyberbullying issues related to children. In a statement issued after the ruling’s release Tuesday, Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy indicated he intends to work with the Albany County Legislature to do just that.

“In its decision, the court suggested that while the intent of the law is laudable, the law itself needed some clarification,” McCoy wrote. “I will work with the County Legislature to craft new legislation that addresses this decision and preserves our ability to do what we can to reduce cyberbullying of children.”

The ruling overturns the conviction of the Cohoes student and is also expected to end a similar prosecution over a November incident at Guilderland High School in which four students were charged under the county law for a rap song they allegedly made and posted online that included vulgar references to fellow students. All four cases remained pending Tuesday and scheduled for trial later this year, officials said.

The Cohoes and Guilderland cases were the only ones that resulted in charges under the law.

The New York Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday called the decision important, saying it is one of the first times such a law has been ruled upon by a state appeals court. The group handled the Cohoes student’s appeal.

“Cyberbullying is a serious concern that all communities must confront, but there are better and more constructive ways to address the problem than giving children criminal records,” NYCLU senior staff attorney Corey Stoughton, lead counsel on the case, said in a statement. “Communities across New York and the nation should take note that criminalizing First Amendment activity is unlawful and does nothing to address the causes of bullying or prevent it from taking place.”

The NYCLU also pointed to the state’s Dignity for All Students Act from 2012, which protects public school students from multiple forms of bullying and harassment, requiring training to identify and address bullying and to teach children to respect each other.

The group said that approach best addresses the problem.

In the Cohoes case, the 15-year-old student was charged in December 2010, about a month after the law went into effect. He was accused of anonymously posting photographs of high-school classmates and other adolescents while detailing their purported sexual practices.

Police investigated and identified the person who posted the information. The boy admitted his actions and was charged. He later pleaded guilty to one count of cyberbullying, but reserved his right to challenge the constitutionality of the law. He lost on his first appeal to Albany County Court, but appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals.

Attorneys for Albany County conceded parts of the law were invalid. They asked the high court to invalidate those parts, but to leave intact the valid parts related to online communication of a sexual nature related to minors if the sender intends to inflict emotional harm. The court found it could not do that and had to invalidate the entire law.

The two-justice dissent wrote that the court could modify the law and keep the provisions that were constitutional.

 
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