In an opinion piece in the Room for Debate section of The New York Times, Harvard Law School Professor John Palfrey discusses whether the death of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student, calls for tougher laws against malicious acts online. Palfrey is the Henry N. Ess III professor of law at Harvard Law School and the faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. He is the co-author of “Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives.” Palfrey’s article, “Solutions Beyond the Law” appeared in the Oct. 1, 2010 edition of the Times, as part of the “Cyberbullying and a Student’s Suicide” debate.

Solutions beyond the law

by John Palfrey

The suicides of young people, no matter the reasons why, are heartbreaking. As parents, it’s hard to imagine anything worse. As educators, it makes us focus on doing everything we can to heal our communities and teaching our kids not to harm one another in such terrible ways. As a society, it prompts us ask how we might change the rules to prevent it from happening again. It forces us to confront the unpleasant problem of what justice looks like when we are treating the other young people who were involved, one way or another, in the narrative that led up to the suicides.

We need to examine whether the law is sufficient to discourage bullying in this new hybrid online-offline environment.

As we think about whether we need new laws to address cyberbullying, we should consider what social science can tell us about what’s going on. Cyberbullying is just bullying that happens to be mediated through digital technologies. There’s nothing fundamentally different about it.

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