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Cyberbullying 101

Candor and cruelty can dominate the national discourse. Legal contributor SCOTT SHAIL examaines the paradox of social media, and discovers how institutions of higher learning are intervening in the collapse of civility.

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When I was in college, the Computer Lab was considered the high tech hub on campus. It was from here that I sent my first e-mails to other students, and communicated in a way that previously had been consigned to in-person conversations in the common areas, library and quad.

But today’s college and university communities have unlimited access to a wide range of technology options to share educational material, opinion, praise and criticism about students and faculty alike. These tools include, but are not limited to, e-mail, blogs, video recording, social networking websites and cell phones. Additionally technology tools allow brick-and-mortar colleges and universities to offer online classes, as well as open the education market to the newer online universities sprouting up across the country and around the world. The explosive growth in the use of these technological tools in higher education implicate various laws; including established copyright and emerging laws dealing with the future of technology. These various policies and bodies of law not only govern the conduct of students, but also regulate how staff and faculty conduct themselves, too.

One of the most controversial issues involving the regulation of technology within higher learning communities is peer-to-peer file sharing: a form of file sharing using peer networking. File sharing provides access to audio and video media, as well as documents and digital books. Through peer-to-peer file sharing, individuals can use software to connect to their peer’s networks, shared files, and others who are connected to the same network.

In response to the growing peer-to-peer file sharing phenomenon, Congress passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act in 2008 (hereafter, “The Act”). The Act requires all colleges and universities that accept federal financial aid, and to take affirmative steps to stop the spread of unlawful peer-to-peer file sharing. The law and the regulations implementing the Act require colleges and universities to notify students of copyright law and the penalties associated with violating it. Additionally the Act requires these institutions to create, adopt and enforce mandatory on-campus policies to address peer-to-peer file sharing activities on campus. Today, most colleges and universities that provide direct Internet access for students qualify as Internet service providers (ISP). College ISP’s qualify for safe harbor liability protection resulting from their student’s activities provided they maintain a file sharing policy that includes certain penalties.

Another important aspect of campus technology confronting students is the use of a campuses online network. Most colleges and universities maintain policies that include implied consent provisions that are triggered the moment students access their institution’s network. This means students agree to abide by policies governing the campus network and agree that they are subject to any applicable federal, state, and local laws simply by accessing the network. Furthermore, the student network users consent to any monitoring activities that the university deems appropriate. Typical activities that are prohibited on campus networks include: (1) promotion of any commercial business; (2) software piracy or copyright infringement; (3) attempts to override security measures or in any way gain unauthorized access to computer resources; and (4) deliberate disruption of the campus network.


On the flip side of the internet’s many advantages is a rather dark horse called cyber-bullying. Cyber-bullying is a growing form of harassment where co-eds post harmful or cruel statements and images with the intent to intimidate others. In a recent study, 38% of students reported knowing someone who had been cyber-bullied, 21.9% indicated they had been cyber-bullied, and 8.6% reported being cyber-bullies at some point. Relatively speaking, cyber-bullying is very easy because of the anonymity of the perpetrator and his or her physical remoteness from the victim. Several websites originally established as open forums for students to post anonymous and uncensored comments about classmates or instructors have been ultimately shut down due to instances of threats and potential violence.

In response to the cyber-bullying epidemic that has swept over higher education, several states have enacted legislation to create strict policies addressing cyber-bullying by students. As of 2011, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Washington have regulations addressing cyber-bullying. The intent of this legislation is to provide learning institutions with authority to address cyber-bullying on campuses through the implementation of institutional policies and penalties.

With the acknowledged pros and cons to campus life wit technology, learning institutions can offer increased availability of online courses to a wider range of people. With so many technological tools at their disposal, many online universities have been created “in the clouds” to offer a full menu of courses to prospective students. This has become a highly lucrative business as online universities offer two-year, four-year and even advanced degrees that help students obtain diplomas. Online learning can be far more economical than paying the tuition associated with conventional brick-and-mortar universities, and this will likely put pressure on traditional colleges to evaluate their cost structures and teaching methodologies in the future. While many employers may view traditional degrees as carrying greater credibility, even elite institutions like Johns Hopkins and Stanford are now offering online courses.

Learning institutions and policy makers are now collaborating to develop and adopt models to create win-win scenarios for schools, students and faculty. Greater course availability to a larger population for less money will undoubtedly alter the very structure of higher education in this country and throughout the world. Technology is enabling new teaching models, altering curricula and fostering new forms of online collaboration for deeper breadth and depth of research. Additionally use of technology in education is helping to develop a new generation of potential employees that will be armed and ready for gainful employment in the technology-based knowledge economy that is being fueled by the likes of Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple.

In seven years my son will go off to college. While his Dad muddled through card catalogues and wrote papers by hand, my son’s generation will undoubtedly study and learn in ways we cannot even imagine today. My hope is that I raised a scholar, not a bully, but only time will tell.

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