Last week, Bethany Koval, a junior at Fair Lawn High School, learned first-hand just how easily technology spans physical distances that would have seemed daunting when her town was created. Her story is a fascinating look at the interplay of American free speech values, efforts to legislate tolerance and compassion, and the global reach of social media. At the same time, it is a cautionary tale for school districts and school administrators, who need to realize that even a summons to the principal’s office can become a global media event.
Anatomy of a Controversy
In February 2015, Koval (@BendyKoval) joined Twitter. Over the course of the following year, she sent out more than 21,000 tweets and landed nearly 4,000 followers (a number that shot up to more than 7,000 in part because of this incident). Koval has a deep-seated interest in political issues, particularly those arising out of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Her tweets leave little doubt as to her sympathies. The Gothamist highlighted two particular tweets that helped light the fuse of the recent dispute:
Hamas is not extreme: Hamas is just painted that way Hateful rhetoric against Hamas is what allowed the Gaza bombing https://t.co/eprM2ahGHV — benny (@bendykoval) December 23, 2015
Israel is a terrorist force :(. Gaza bombing of 2014 death toll: 2,104 Palestinians innocents to 66 Israeli soldiers https://t.co/GpI0TtofWs — benny (@bendykoval) December 23, 2015
So far, at least, Koval’s tweets were all squarely between the uprights of First Amendment protection for students, although she was beginning to risk causing the type of “substantial and material disruption” that the U.S. Supreme Court set as one of the justifications for suppression of student speech. See, e.g. Tinker v. Des Moines, 393 U.S. 503 (1969). Fair Lawn has an active Jewish community; twenty years ago, the community was described as “a magnet for Jews from all over the United States as well as Jewish immigrants from Israel and the former Soviet Union.” Today, roughly 4% of the Fair Lawn’s residents identify as Jewish, and the town is home to a number of synagogues.
Not surprisingly, Koval’s tweets did not go unnoticed in her school or her community, notwithstanding the fact that this all took place over the school’s winter break. Some of Koval’s Jewish classmates took offense and at least one of them unfollowed her. Again, not a particularly big deal so far. Things grew more legally complex, however, thanks to Koval’s response. She clearly felt this was good news:
im sooooo glad that pro-Israel girl from my school unfollowed me! I’m so FREE now like….. FUCK ISRAEL FUCK ISRAEL FUCK ISRAEL FUCK ISRAEL — benny (@bendykoval) December 27, 2015
One of Koval’s other classmates asked for the identity of the people who unfriended her, and Koval sent this reply:
@L_Chevere YOU’RE MY FAVORITE LOCAL. I’M DMING YOU THEIR NAMES RN — benny (@bendykoval) December 26, 2015
On January 6, a couple of days after school resumed, Koval was summoned to the office of assistant principal Frank Guadagnino. Not surprisingly, she posted an update to her Twitter followers:
Principal just called me down. I’m about to be exposed for being anti-Israel. Pray for me. — benny (@bendykoval) January 6, 2016
Illustrating the increasing media and technical savvy of students today, Koval recorded her meeting with Guadagnino and later posted clips to Twitter. The assistant principal told Koval that she might be in violation of New Jersey’s “Anti-Bullying Billy of Rights Act,” P.L. 2010, c. 122 (which Governor Chris Christie signed into law in 2011):
Guadagnino: Do you realize that what you put out electronically can also get you in trouble in school, or put you in some kind of problem?
Koval: I haven’t put anything problematic out there. Maybe controversial.
Guadagnino: That’s your interpretation. There’s a state law that might interpret it different.
Given the law’s broad definition of “harassment, intimidation, or bullying,” that’s not an unreasonable possibility:
[A]ny gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, whether it be a single incident or a series of incidents, that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory disability, or by any other distinguishing characteristic, that takes place on school property, at any school-sponsored function, on a school bus, or off school grounds as provided for in section 16 of P.L.2010, c.122 (C.18A:37-15.3), that substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students and that:
a. a reasonable person should know, under the circumstances, will have the effect of physically or emotionally harming a student or damaging the student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm to his person or damage to his property;
b. has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students; or
c. creates a hostile educational environment for the student by interfering with a student’s education or by severely or pervasively causing physical or emotional harm to the student.
Despite Koval’s assertion that her summons was politically-motivated, the school had little choice but to interview her. The NJ HIB law imposes a significant regulatory burden on schools, with mandatory requirements for extensive training of school personnel, the adoption of response procedures, prompt investigation of all complaints of bullying or harassment, and annual reports to the state Department of Education. Nonetheless, Koval continued to push her view that the investigation was a blatant suppression of her free speech rights:
Threatened to file bullying case against me. It’s against state law to express unpopular political views on the Internet, now. — benny (@bendykoval) January 6, 2016
Koval’s running commentary on her interactions with school officials caught the attention of people worldwide. She quickly received the modern badges of honor–a personalized hashtag (#IStandWithBenny) and a GoFundMe campaign–and hundreds, if not thousands of people worldwide posted supportive messages. Somewhat more ominously, her situation also attracted the attention of the online activist group Anonymous, which launched a sympathetic Twitter feed @OpFreeBenny and helped publicize the contact information for Fair Lawn High School administrators (which Koval had previously tweeted). The school was quickly bombarded by emails and phone calls from across the globe.
As the media uproar accelerated, Koval began dealing with the fall-out at home. Her parents had tense conversations with school administrators and Koval sent out a plea on Twitter asking her followers to stop contacting the school. At the end of what must have been a very challenging and upsetting day, she sent out a final tweet before making her Twitter account private:
Okay. My parents are really mad. REALLY mad. I have to get off Twitter for now. Thank you for your love and support. Keep fighting 🇸🇩❣👊 — benny (@bendykoval) January 6, 2016
Lessons and Reflections
As the length of this post illustrates, the Koval controversy offers a multitude of interesting issues and themes for parents, educators, school administrators, and school districts. Here are just a few of the topics that are worth discussing.
Student Free Speech: Although I haven’t read all of Koval’s more than 21,000(!) tweets, I don’t think that there is any question that her thoughts on global political issues in general and the Israeli-Palestine conflict are entirely protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Like the students who donned black armbands in the Tinker case, Koval is using the tools at her disposal (namely Twitter) to comment on one of the pressing issues of our time. She is entirely within her rights to do so, and I am sure that the Tinkers would have done the same thing if Twitter were available during the Vietnam War.
Parental Supervision: Kudos to Koval’s parents for turning down the volume of this incident by compelling Koval to make her Twitter account private and to take a break (although to be fair, I’m not a follower, so I don’t know if she is completely off Twitter). The only mild criticism I might offer is that this was something of a foreseeable controversy; any child who sends out over 21,000 tweets in a single year (roughly 60 per day), particularly on politically-sensitive topics, is likely to ruffle some feathers and hurt some feelings. They clearly (and rightly) did not want to hobble her political activism and mute her voice, but given the breadth of the New Jersey anti-bullying law, Koval was running a real risk of potential problems well before this dust-up occurred. I don’t know how often, if ever, her parents read her Twitter feed, but if other parents reading this blog post have children who are highly active on social media, it would be a really good idea to check in on what they are doing and help them to understand that words have consequences.
The Shifting Balance of Power in Schools: As I frequently point out in my lectures, mobile digital technology has had a profound leveling effect between educators and students. This manifests itself in myriad ways. Some students use the constant connection to global information resources to correct their teachers. Some use their global publication capabilities to highlight misbehavior by teachers; others use it to harass or embarrass unpopular educators. Some educators mistake the technical sophistication of students for the emotional maturity of a peer. And still others, like Koval, sense the political power and cultural influence in the combination of mobile technology and social media.
School administrators need to be cognizant of the implications of this shift. Many students are much more skeptical of what they are being taught; as Koval told The Gothamist, “I’ve been fed all kinds of kinds of propaganda and I started to question a lot of it.” The power inherent in mobile technology has eroded the respect which is a critical component of effective education. And as educators are painfully aware, some threats are real: Even if Koval had no intention of causing any actual harm (and there is no evidence that she did), she clearly saw the value of using the weight and implicit threat of her social media presence as a negotiating tool. But technological or even social media savvy is not the same thing as wisdom and experience, and what young mobile users rarely appreciate is that the Internet is a Kraken. Once released, it is not easily controlled. Fortunately, cooler heads (including, to be fair, Koval herself) prevailed and a potentially ugly situation was avoided.
The new reality imposed by digital technology hardly means the end of education. What it does mean, however, is that schools and parents need to do a better job of collaborating on standards and curricula that teach and reinforce concepts of digital citizenship (including appropriate respect for authority) without dampening critical thinking and free expression. Our children have a much greater capability to learn about and interact with the world then ever before, but that in no way means that long-established standards of polite and humane conduct should be abandoned.
The Tricky Balance Between Free Speech and Anti-Bullying Efforts: As someone who has and continues to work to reduce the incidence of cyberbullying and its most tragic consequences, I understand and in general support the effort to explicitly prevent “harassment, intimidation, and bullying.” It was not unreasonable for Koval’s offended classmate to feel “initimidated” when Koval publicly announced to her many thousand followers that she was sending the classmate’s name to someone else, even in a direct message. No one could predict where that information might wind up, or what might be done with it. It was inappropriate for Koval to do so, even if she did not intend it to be threatening.
But that highlights the persistent problem with laws like the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights.” The scope of the language is so broad that it potentially covers any interaction between two individuals, beyond the most banal of exchanges. The boundaries of free speech are limned by the swings of a pendulum, and given the newness of digital technology and social media, the pendulum has swung sharply to one extreme. Over time, I think that the pendulum will (and should) swing the other way, as we better understand the power of this new technology and establish appropriate social norms for its use.
When Adults Are Bad Role Models: In light of the attention paid to the issue of cyberbullying in the wake of the death of Tyler Clementi, it is completely understandable that Governor Chris Christie signed the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights,” although it does belie his high-volume disdain for “political correctness.”
What is less forgivable is the fact that Governor Christie violates the spirit of the law in virtually every public appearance on the 2016 presidential campaign trail. One does not have to wander into the wilds of liberal media to find publications that have concerns about his temperament. Last summer, Fortune, for instance, asked point-blank “Chris Christie 2016: Should a bully be president?” At about the same time, CNN ran a similar article: “Chris Christie tries to shed bully image in New Hampshire.” And a full year and a half earlier, the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein reached a stark but compelling conclusion: “Chris Christie’s problem is that he’s really, truly a bully.” And as last night’s Republican debate made clear, Governor Christie is often blatantly disrespectful of authority himself; at one point, he proudly stated that “[W]e are going to kick your rear end out of the White House come this fall[.]”
Let’s be clear: I have significant and enduring policy disagreements with Governor Christie. But I have even more profound disagreements with him in my capacities as anti-bullying advocate and as a parent. Governor Christie should be a role model for decency, respect, and citizenship, but instead, he is the archetype of a bully, someone who uses his power, his volume, his physical presence, and often, his gender, to harass, intimidate, and bully people with whom he does not agree or with whom he thinks his supporters will not agree. He’s undoubtedly proud of the fact that his disrespectful remark was the most-tweeted comment in the debate. Unfortunately, he mistakes pandering for leadership and like far too many teens, social media affirmation for meaningful accomplishment.
Governor Christie is hardly alone in this scabrous political season, but it would be nice if he and others recognized that social media is consumed as avidly today by children as it is adults (if not more so). Let’s elevate the tone of our political and social discourse.