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This Critical Debate is part of a Debate Comparison:

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Duration
30-60 minutes
Topic(s)
  • Constitution
  • Current Events
Grade(s)
  • 9-12
  • College/University

THE CASE

You are a major funder of a nonprofit aimed at improving young people’s mental health. You believe strongly that online harassment and demeaning messages — often known as cyberbullying — are a serious problem among teens.

You have assembled an advisory team to explore the many ways your funding could support anti-cyberbullying initiatives. Your team is composed of educators, mental health experts, media professionals and lawyers.

The educators and mental health professionals think your organization should push for a nationwide law that would make cyberbullying a crime. They argue that teenagers are especially susceptible to mental health issues such as depression and even suicide, and that cyberbullying won’t be taken seriously until there is a federal law against it. They say that protecting the mental health of the country’s youth should be your first priority and that the First Amendment should not be used to protect speech intended to harm others.

The media professionals and lawyers, however, think your money should be spent to teach teens positive online habits and how to remain resilient in the face of abusive online content. They argue that supporting a law to criminalize cyberbullying is a waste of money because the Supreme Court would eventually strike it down as a violation of the First Amendment. The lawyers cite cases where state supreme courts have overturned state laws against cyberbullying for this reason. The media professionals are also concerned about setting precedents that could have a chilling effect on all free speech.

After hearing both arguments, you must decide the best way to spend your time and money.

Should you back a nationwide law against cyberbullying?

  1. Yes. A law is needed to send a serious message and block harmful speech.

    This issue deserves to be a priority. As long as you carefully define cyberbullying, a national law could shed light on a serious issue and protect young people from harmful online attacks.

  2. No. Look at educational solutions, because banning speech is not the answer.

    Cyberbullying is a real problem, but a law against it would be hard to enforce and probably violate First Amendment freedoms. Focus instead on enforcing existing laws and teaching teens to confront this behavior and use social media responsibly.

  • Should the First Amendment protect cyberbullying?
  • How would you define cyberbullying? Where is the line between a mean photo or comment and something that should be considered a criminal act?
  • How would you tell the difference between cyberbullying and other forms of online speech? Would you be able to differentiate cyberbullying from a joke? A poem? A piece of fiction?
  • Although cyberbullying takes place in the virtual world online, how could it affect a teenager at school or home?
  • If some states have laws against cyberbullying, is a national law needed?
  • Whose job should it be to regulate online content? Who should decide if content meets the definition of cyberbullying or not?
  • What do you think is the best way to address the problem of cyberbullying?

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