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Jail time could await North Carolina students who go after teachers online

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Even telling the truth about a teacher online could land North Carolina students in jail. (AP)

North Carolina students who go after their teachers online could face jail time -- and truth won't even be a defense, under a new law that critics say infringes on free speech rights.

The law, called the School Violence Prevention Act, is aimed at students who torment their teachers by creating fake online profiles, posting personal information or images, signing them up to pornographic sites or make any statement, "whether true or false" that's intended to "immediately provoke" anyone to "stalk or harass a school employee."

"It became apparent that we had to get some kind of protection," said Judy Kidd, of the Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina, which sought the legislation. 

But critics of the law, which took effect Dec. 1 and makes such actions a Class 2 misdemeanor equal to simple assault or resisting arrest, say it is vague, overly harsh and unconstitutional. The ACLU of North Carolina said “criminalizing student speech is a slippery slope and establishes a bad precedent.”

“This law is so vague that it could easily result in a student being arrested simply for posting something on the Internet that a school official finds offensive,” ACLU-NC Policy Director Sarah Preston said.

Preston said one of the more troubling aspects of the law is that a student could go to jail for up to 60 days for posting something truthful on the Internet.

“Young people should not be taught that they will be punished for telling the truth, speaking freely, or questioning authority – yet that is exactly what could happen under this law.

'Basically the state is making it illegal to make a truthful statement.'

- Hans Von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow, the Heritage Foundation

Hans Von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation, agreed that the state is on shaky ground when it claims the right to punish a citizen who makes a true statement about a teacher, given that truth is a traditional defense against slander and defamation.

“Basically the state is making it illegal to make a truthful statement, and that is such a violation of the First Amendment,” Von Spakovsky said. “This will have a chilling effect.”

Preston cited several scenarios where a student could seemingly run afoul of the law by engaging in relatively innocuous behavior. For instance, a student might post on social media websites an objection to a decision by school administrators, claim on an online bulletin board that they are “tired” of a particular teacher or even post a complaint about an offensive comment made by an instructor. And what might happen to a student who accurately exposes a teacher online for having an inappropriate relationship with an underage student? Preston wondered. 

“We think that the punishment is disproportionate to the action,” Preston said. “If it’s OK for the government to criminalize a student’s speech, then what’s to stop them from criminalizing what someone might say about a government official?”

Neal McCluskey, an educational analyst with The Cato Institute, said the problem North Carolina is seeking to address is real, but that the remedy may be even worse.

“This isn’t clear cut," McCluskey said. "There are arguments for both sides. The schools have to be able to keep order, but it’s extremely troubling that North Carolina would enact a law like this. This is dangerous because it criminalizes free speech.”

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