Judge Says Free Speech Trumps Online Harassment

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Threatening and harassing anonymous texts against a student-run feminist group via the now defunct phone app Yik Yak are protected under the First Amendment, a federal judge ruled.

The Feminist Majority Foundation sued the University of Mary Washington in 2015, saying it failed to protect them from cyberbullying that included “insulting, derogatory and threatening” messages.

The threats, online and in person, were particularly directed at women who spoke publicly about sexual assault and violence against women, the group said. After they spoke, they said, users on Yik Yak began bullying them both online and in person.

The group filed a Title IX complaint, which U.S. District Judge John Gibney Jr. dismissed on Tuesday, finding that the harassment “took place in a context over which UMW had limited, if any, control.”

Gibney added that the school did attempt to take action to address the problem, including holding “sharing circles” to discuss cyberbullying. Also, after a student made one Feminist Majority member feel unsafe during a sharing circle, the college ordered a police officer to attend the meetings.

In June 2015, university president Richard Hurley published a letter in a variety of news outlets, describing the actions the college had taken to address the Yik Yak controversy.

Hurley acknowledged that some of the messages “were certainly offensive and alarming in isolation, but must be placed in context.”

Gibney wrote in his 11-page opinion: “As social media has proliferated, cyberbullying has become a national problem. This holds especially true in situations where bullies can hide behind the cloak of anonymity, a protection that the traditional schoolyard setting did not afford. Solutions are not easy or obvious to anyone. In seeking solutions, however, schools cannot ignore other rights vital to this country, such as the right to free speech.”

However, the judge said the students did not allege ongoing harassment, and noted that Yik Yak has shut down. So he granted the school’s motion to dismiss.

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