April 3, 2011

Guest Post - Andrea Weckerle

I am pleased to welcome to The Mom Pledge Blog today Andrea Weckerle. I was looking through the agenda for BlogHer '11 recently, and saw a scheduled panel on cyber bullying. Andrea will be a participant in that panel. I reached out to her and asked if she would guest post on this blog. 

One of the things I have been asked often since launching The Mom Pledge is how to define what online bullying is - and isn't. I have also been contacted by individuals who are victims of serious cyber bullying and were looking for help. I am not an expert in this area, but I was determined to find those who are and could guest post on this topic. Andrea is the first. She is an American attorney, and founder of the 501(c)(3) non-profit organization Civilination, an outstanding organization taking a stand for civil digital discourse.

Andrea and I have spoken on the phone and are excited to explore ways our two groups can work together. We share an important goal and hope to have opportunities to support one another. In the meantime, I am grateful to her for sharing some thoughts with our members on cyber bullying. Thanks, Andrea! I look forward to meeting you in person in San Diego!

What should we call the craziness of tearing each other apart online? Should we call it cyberbullying or cyberharassment, or simply online hostility? Regardless of what we name it, it’s become an epidemic that’s taking an enormous emotional, physical and reputational toll on people. Online hostility is no joke.

But what exactly is online hostility? It covers a broad spectrum of behavior, some of which is illegal while some is not, depending on the specific action, content and the applicable law in the jurisdiction. The behaviors can range from rude comments aimed at a target, belittling, teasing or mocking, insulting and name-calling, and negative gossip that’s intended to harm target, to revealing personal or private information about a target, sharing embarrassing or damaging information about her, privacy intrusions, accusations of fabricated wrongdoing, threats of attacks against a target’s reputation, making defamatory statements about a target or her family, and cyberstalking. See a complete list on the CiviliNation site: http://civilination.org/2011/01/what-exctly-is-online-hostility/

Not all of the behaviors mentioned above are legally actionable, and in fact, several, such as teasing and mocking, are protected forms of expression. But if you find yourself the target of behaviors that are not legally protected, civil or criminal action can sometimes be taken. You may choose, after consultation with an experienced attorney, to file a civil lawsuit, or a prosecutor may prosecute the defendant at the federal, state or local level, sometimes leading to incarceration.

The ultimate issue, however, really concerns the parameters of online speech and where we should draw the line. In a democratic society, we have to tread very carefully around attempts to stifle legally-recognized free speech. We have to remember that spirited debate and passionate dissent are what make a free society go around. Instead, we should create and enforce social norms that don’t tolerate online behavior that’s intended to put others in fear or threat of being the target of unwarranted abuse, harassment, or lies.

Our ultimate goal should be to move towards a democratic, open, rational and truth-based exchange of ideas and information, recognizing that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right which no one should have taken away from them through attempts at silencing those we disagree with.
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