Should Parents Be Liable in Cyber-Bullying Cases?

Written by Mark O'Mara.

Two girls in Florida, 14 and 12 years old, have been arrested and charged with aggravated stalking -- cyber bullying. They allegedly tormented a 12-year-old girl named Rebecca so relentlessly that last month, Rebecca leapt to her death from a tower in an abandoned concrete plant. The arrest came after the 14-year-old made the following post on Facebook: “Yes IK I bullied REBECCA nd she killed her self but IDGAF.” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said he would charge the parents if he could, but there were no “obvious charges” against them.

Before filing charges against the girls, Sheriff Judd asked the parents to bring the girls in for questioning. They refused. In the case of the 14 year-old, if she’s making Facebook posts about the suicide of the girl she allegedly bullied, the parents may argue that they have no effective way to monitor or curtail her online behavior. They don’t know what she’s doing, and they don’t care.

The question is this: is their ignorance and apathy about their daughter’s cyber-bullying criminal? Under our current laws, it looks like the answer is “no.” Should that sort of willful blindness or gross negligence be criminal? I think it should, and here’s why: if a child kills someone while operating a parent’s car, the parents can be held responsible. If a child kills someone while using a parent’s gun, the parent can be held responsible. If a child breaks the law using a computer or cellphone provided by the parent, how is that different?

Parents need to understand that the technology they give to their children can be used to break the law and inflict harm. Parents need to understand that allowing their children the privilege of going online comes with responsibility and liability. If parents are not going to assume this responsibility on their own, and it seems like the parents in this case are not, then I would support legislation that places legal responsibility on parents, making them liable for what the children do with the online access parents provide. I am drafting a proposed law that would give Sheriff Judd the “obvious charges” needed to hold parents accountable.

I understand there are substantial obstacles in the way of passing such legislation. While it is a straight-forward process to hold a parent responsible when a child uses a dangerous instrumentality such as gun, it’s more difficult for a non-dangerous instrumentality like a cell phone or a computer. Moreover, holding a parent liable requires proof that they had knowledge of the activity, and we have to recognize that teenagers can find ways to avoid detection. Finally, there are constitutional due-process concerns with holding a third party liable for criminal acts, especially when a statute already exists to hold the child criminally liable. In the wake of this suicide, Sheriff Judd has implored parents to take more responsibility for their children’s online behavior. If parents won’t adopt that responsibility, we need to hold their feet to the fire and insist they share liability, especially when their children’s actions have life or death consequences. As we explore the possibility of such legislation, we invite and request comments and insights on this issue.

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