It will soon be illegal for a student to bully a teacher online in North Carolina, under an expansion of the state's cyberbullying law that goes into effect Dec. 1 and may be the first of its kind in the country.

The School Violence Prevention Act of 2012 will make it a misdemeanor for students to post something online "with the intent to intimidate or torment a school employee." It builds on a similar law passed in 2009 that criminalized online bullying of a student or a student's parent or guardian.

Legislators say the law is necessary to keep up with the rise of students on social media.

"On the Internet, if it's in print, a lot of times people accept it as the truth," said the bill's primary sponsor, Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Republican from Union County. "Certainly if you put something in print that could damage the reputation and character of a teacher then there should be some sort of penalty."

But critics say that what constitutes cyberbullying isn't clear in the law and that fear of punishment could stifle free speech. State law has never defined the word "intimidate," said Sarah Preston, American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina policy director.

"Without definitions of 'torment' or 'intimidate,' it's not clear what online activity will violate the law," Preston said. "It does invite arbitrary enforcement because there's no clear legal standard."

Preston also notes that the law extends beyond libel, by criminalizing statements, "whether true or false," that could provoke someone to harass a school employee.

"Even if you post a factual statement about your teacher, then it could be criminal depending on the interpretation of those words," Preston said.

Tucker counters that intimidation has a clear definition -- "to use a tactic that would cause someone to change one's behavior" -- that doesn't need to be spelled out in the law. The General Assembly passed the law in July with only one dissenting vote.

Activities made illegal by the statute could include building a fake profile or website; posting personal or sexual information about school employees; and signing school employees up for pornographic websites or junk mail.

The law might be the first in the country to make student-on-teacher cyberbullying a crime, both Tucker and Preston said. The offense is a class 2 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail.

Cyberbullying as a crime

Local district attorneys have charged 37 people under the 2009 cyberbullying law, though only three have been convicted, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

Two students at South Johnston High School in Four Oaks -- Justin Ray Jackson and Joshua Aarron Temple -- were charged with cyberbullying in February 2011. Jackson was accused of posting comments about running over a 15-year-old fellow student with his pickup truck, and Temple was charged with posting that he would bring a gun to school to hunt the student.

Lawyers settled the matter out of court and charges were dropped after the teens completed community service.

Cyberbullying cases are difficult to prosecute, said Jameson Marks, the Johnston County assistant district attorney assigned to the case. "Just because something was posted from their account doesn't mean that they're the ones who posted it," Marks said.

"People get pranked like that a lot. Being able to prove that it was that person who sat at that computer and typed that is difficult."

Stephen Walker, Temple's attorney, said he doesn't have a problem with the 2009 law as long as it is applied fairly. He said even if his client did what he was accused of, it doesn't rise to the level of misdemeanor cyberbullying.

"I think that law was really meant to address those times when it's so pervasive and the bullying is so bad that it really causes emotional, almost physical, trouble for the person being bullied," Walker said. "Lawyers don't like vague laws, especially when it comes to speech. Anytime you have something that has the possibility of limiting that, it has to be specific enough that you're not going to have the possibility of violating your constitutional rights." The 2009 law prompted Johnston County school leaders to create a policy this summer that regulates Internet use off-campus, said Oliver Johnston, assistant superintendent of student services.

The rules ban all messages that violate school regulations or "harass, bully or intimidate employees or other students." Promoting gang activity, school vandalism and threats of physical harm are also regulated.

The policy is designed to combat problems within school, Johnston said, while the state law helps parents and children with bullying outside of school.

"Bullying has always been an issue of concern for schools," Johnston said. "It's just that it's evolved from the playground, where we could view physical bullying, to online."

Nearly all high school students use Facebook, and a growing number are getting smartphones, said Mark Jewell, vice-president of the N.C. Association of Educators, which supports the law.

Cyberbullying against students and teachers is becoming more prevalent, he said.

"It's been done not only to teachers, but administrators and principals," Jewell said. "Educators were definitely saying that kids, students and staff need to be protected with legislation."

The Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina, based in Charlotte, fought for the 2012 law. President Judy Kidd said a criminal penalty is necessary because students will not stop harassing teachers online if school regulations are their only threat of punishment.

Kidd cited a student who went online to accuse a teacher and ROTC leader of groping her. She was angry about her schedule, Kidd said, and after it was changed she recanted the whole story. But the teacher was suspended for five weeks while the investigation was pending and was devastated by the false accusation, she said.

"What the law does is protect the teachers against false accusations, which is a real problem -- some students will stoop to any level to get what they want," Kidd said. "If you're ever going to get a society under control, there have to be penalties for doing things that are wrong."

(c)2012 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)