For three years in a row, the ACLU of Iowa and other free speech advocates have blocked proposed anti-bullying bills. Next session, we hope for a bill that protects kids and their First Amendment rights.
Boy and his computer

September 2015

Kids in Iowa have a right to safe, nondiscriminatory school environments. They also have the right to schools that protect their civil and constitutional rights, including freedom of expression and due process.

That lack of protection was a key flaw in the proposed anti-bullying bill during the 2015 Iowa legislative session proposed legislation would have expanded the authority of schools to monitor, investigate, and ultimately impose punishment for constitutionally protected speech. This would have included speech made outside of school hours, off school time, and in a variety of electronic and social media.

Nothing in the bill restrained schools’ ability to investigate and punish kids for what they might say or write at home with their parents, over the summer at camp, in a church group, or while working at an after-school job. Schools would have been permitted into virtually every aspect of students’ lives. The ACLU of Iowa suggested five amendments to the bill, provisions that should also be kept in mind next year if another anti-bullying bill is filed.

1. Limit school monitoring and complaints about student speech to school-related situations.

Schools should not be held liable nor have incentives to monitor students’ social media and electronic communications outside of school and related activities—that has a chilling effect on students’ ability to exercise their free speech rights. Outside the school setting, complaints about bullying should be left to the parents and students to initiate. Otherwise, schools may face incentives to monitor students’ speech whenever possible to limit their own liability for failing to initiate a formal complaint and investigation of alleged bullying.

2. Limit the scope of the bill simply to protecting students.

The bill should have been amended also to make clear that the law protects students from bullying. There have been cases where students have been punished for Facebook or other online posts that were critical of teachers or administrators. For example, a 12-year-old girl in Minnesota was punished for “bullying” an adult hall monitor when the student posted on Facebook that the hall monitor had been mean to her.

3. Include time limits.

The further into the past that schools are authorized to look, the more the potential chilling effect of disciplining students for their speech away from school will be amplified. To justify the investigation, the alleged bullying should be reasonably current, and not, for example, from a prior school year.

4. Don’t feed the school-to-prison pipeline even more.

The language in the bill that specifically authorizes school personnel to refer alleged incidents of bullying or harassment occurring off school grounds to “law enforcement agencies” should have been removed. The appropriate response to an alleged incident of bullying may or may not involve formal discipline, much less referral to law enforcement. We know that when school discipline is imposed, it is imposed more often and more harshly against students of color—sometimes referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s important for the anti-bullying and anti-harassment bill not to become another tool for draconian school discipline that can be expected to have disparate racial impact.

5. Keep schools’ authority at school.

The bill should make clear that schools have the authority to investigate speech made outside of school only when some component of the alleged bullying occurred at school or was otherwise under the school’s authority. !e ACLU supports the crucial effort to reduce bullying in our schools.

With the right amendments, the ACLU would not oppose anti-bullying legislation. We continue to work toward a safe school environment for all kids where their freedom of expression is championed.

September 2015