When does your freedom of speech turn into cyberbullying? That’s the question making the rounds of social media after the firing of Elizabeth Lauten (actually she resigned, but I doubt any intelligent person believes she wasn’t “asked to resign” after the incident sparked a feeding frenzy on social media), communications director for Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN) for her classless remarks about the Obama girls, Sasha and Malia.
Here’s what Lauten had to say on Facebook about the girl’s appearance during the annual turkey pardoning ceremony at the White House:
Dear Sasha and Malia: I get you’re both in those awful teen years, but you’re a part of the First Family, try showing a little class. At least respect the part you play. Then again your mother and father don’t respect their positions very much, or the nation for that matter, so I’m guessing you’re coming up a little short in the “good role model” department. Nevertheless, stretch yourself. Rise to the occasion. Act like being in the White House matters to you. Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar. And certainly don’t make faces during televised, public events.
Now, I don’t care about your politics, but don’t you think Lauten stepped over the line between freedom of speech and cyberbullying?
Especially given that the girls in question are 13 and 16?
Could you or your kids stand up to public view every day without ever doing something others might construe as inappropriate?
Personally, I know of several occasions best left to history rather than being immortalized on the front page of a major national newspaper. Like the day as a frazzled mother of 3 when I took my daughter to preschool without shoes (we returned home to retrieve them, don’t worry). Or the day I was dropping the girls off, when 1 started vomiting and the other joined out of sympathy for her sister. We arrived back home stripped of soiled clothing and reeking. I’m certainly glad there wasn’t a photographer there to chronicle our disheveled appearance.
Freedom of speech versus cyberbullying
Freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. But, I don’t think our forefathers envisioned a world of smartphone cameras and social platforms. In those days, freedom of speech protected protestors seeking redress against their governments, not cyberbullies hiding behind their Facebook profile or Twitter stream to call out personal actions to cause political embarrassment for being human.
I always advise folks you shouldn’t post anything on social media you wouldn’t feel comfortable posting on a billboard on Main Street.
Even a closed Facebook profile or a locked Twitter doesn’t offer much privacy. A post gets reposted or RT by someone without such privacy controls and your private post becomes public knowledge. Speech that might be considered protected by the First Amendment, becomes cyberbullying when it’s posted on a social media platform. Period.
If Lauten made the same remark at a dinner party, fine. But posting it on social media is cyberbullying and cowardly and as classless as she accuses the Obama girls of being. And, she has no excuse. Not only is she an adult, but she’s the communications staffer for a member of the House of Representatives. Shame on her. She should have known better.
The First Amendment clashes with digital technology
Social media isn’t your living room!
We may think about social platforms as a way to have digital conversations that we might have in our living room or around our kitchen table in a bygone era, but they’re not. They’re media; they need different rules.
But, it’s not just electronic conversations. Look at how far we’ve come as a society.
When JFK was in office, he had affairs that were well-known to the secret service and White House press corps, but never made the national press pages. We had the inherent belief that no one — politicians, celebrities — gave up their right to privacy simply because they were public figures. We were a society of respect and boundaries.
Now, we’re a culture of individuality and voyeurism. Citizens know more about Kim Kardashian and her intent to break the web by appearing naked than we do about genocide in the Middle East and 300 innocent girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria by mindless terrorists intent on the destruction of our civilization.
So, we encourage media outlets to invade the privacy of elected officials not in search of wrongdoing, but personal behaviors we can laugh at or ridicule. For instance, Representative Lauten worked for (a tea party Republican) voted for a Farm Bill that favored farms like himself (multimillionaires, not family farms) and cut funding for food stamps. Pretty reprehensible if you ask me. But, his poor behavior didn’t make the front page until reporters could tie it in with the Lauten scandal when she cyberbullied the Obama girls.
The need for cyberbullying laws
New laws clearly distinguishing cyberbullying from free speech need to make their way through congress. Even in the Lauten case, crazies defended her statements as free speech rather than identify them for what they were — an attempt to embarrass two innocent girls.
According to the Cyberbullying Research Center:
- Over 80 percent of teens use a cell phone regularly, making it the most popular form of technology and a common medium for cyberbullying
- About half of young people have experienced some form of cyberbullying, and 10 to 20 percent experience it regularly
- Mean, hurtful comments and spreading rumors are the most common type of cyberbullying
- Girls are at least as likely as boys to be cyberbullies or their victims
- Boys are more likely to be threatened by cyberbullies than girls
- Cyberbullying affects all races
- Cyberbullying victims are more likely to have low self-esteem and to consider suicide
Cyberbullying is the biggest part of 4500 teen suicides
In 2006, Megan Meier hung herself after a prolonged incident of cyberbullying by a friend’s mother — she was acquitted of charges.
In 2013, Ciara Pugsley killed herself in Ireland after being cyberbullied for months with messages calling her a slut and ugly. She was 15 years old and beautiful.
Erin and Shannon Gallagher, ages 13 and 15, killed themselves a few months apart because of cyberbullying Erin received. Shannon couldn’t go on without her sister.
Shall I go on?
What do you think about Lauten’s post — free speech or cyberbullying?
Would it matter if the subjects were adults versus children?
What laws are needed to stop cyberbullying or at least give teeth to prosecutors trying to punish abusers?
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