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Cyberbullying Held not Protected Speech in CA Civil Suit

By Tanya Roth, Esq. | Last updated on

A California appeals court has found that cyberbullying is not speech protected by the First Amendment, at least not in the case of a group of teens and their parents who were sued by a cyberbullied victim. Refusing to throw out the suit as what's called a SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), the court found the online statements at issue to fall within the "true threat" exception to First Amendment protection.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, in a 2-1 decision, the California Court of Appeals for the 2nd District found in favor of a student who sued other students after receiving threats posted on his website. The plaintiff, D.C., was a student with aspirations of an acting and singing career and designed a webpage to promote himself. Several students decided that this sort of action was worthy of distain and sent threatening messages and messages mocking what they believed to be his preferred sexual orientation. D.C.'s parents removed him from the school, and the area, and sued six students and their parents, claiming hate crimes, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The appellate court addressed the messages of one defendant, R.R. According to the Chronicle, although he did not know the plaintiff D.C. personally, R.R. was "offended" by the website's self-promotional tone and was moved to send this type of message, "I want to rip out your f***ing heart and feed it to you. ... I've ... wanted to kill you. If I ever see you I'm ... going to pound your head in with an ice pick."

R.R. and his parents wished to have D.C.'s suit dismissed under an anti-SLAPP statute. This law protects defendants from suits over protected speech addressing public issues. The majority of the court found the defendant's message to be threatening, even though the defendant claimed that it was a "joke" and that no one could or should take it as an actual threat. Threatening language is not protected speech under the First Amendment. In addition, despite the budding "career" of D.C., the court found no matter of public interest in this case. D.C.'s suit may proceed.

The attorney for R.R., Rex Beaber, told the Chronicle that the defendant and his parents, would appeal to the California Supreme Court. No reasonable person could have interpreted the message as a serious threat, he said, and the ruling "undermines the First Amendment protection for unpopular speech." 

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