Why Your Freedom Of Speech Is Not An Excuse For Cyber Bullying

Think before you tweet…or post, or comment, or reply, or become a bully.
Flickr / Maryland GovPics
Flickr / Maryland GovPics

The first time I witnessed cyber bullying was on Twitter after Steve Blake missed a three point shot at the buzzer during a regular season Laker game against the Denver Nuggets. The response was atrocious: “@SteveBlake5 I hope your family gets murdered” one Tweet read. Blake’s wife, Kristen, re-tweeted it with one word attached, “WOW.” There were many other commenters after that one, people jumping on the bandwagon and threatening both Blake, his wife, and their children. A reporter caught up with Blake the next day after practice. “It’s pretty disappointing that there are a lot of hateful people out there,” Blake said, “but you move on.”

Since that May 2013 incident, Blake has moved on, even to an entirely different NBA team, but we, as an online community, haven’t. I don’t know Steve Blake in person at all, but Steve Blake on Twitter is an admirable guy. Unlike many high profile athletes, his Twitter bio doesn’t boast about his career or promote a new shoe line; it simply contains a link to a charity he supports that aids Rwandan youth to both attend school and play recreational basketball. I see Steve Blake’s tweets of “Have a blessed day everyone!” and I think, really, him? People went after this guy? They threatened to kill his family over a freaking basketball game?

Instagram / koviebiakolo
Instagram / koviebiakolo

The second time I witnessed cyber bullying was on Instagram. Cory Monteith, the star of Fox’s show Glee, had recently passed away and Lea Michele, his girlfriend and co-star, posted an old picture of them together. Most of the comments below were kind and sincere, wishing Michele peace and encouraging her to stay strong during such a difficult time, sending her emoticon hearts and their condolences. Then there was one comment that was awful, accusing Michele of not caring about Corey because she had only posted three public photos of them together prior to his death. It was devastating to me – how can you write that to someone who just lost the love of their life? What would motivate a person to do that?

One user replied, “Your a bitch so what only three pics. She’s more successful than you will ever be. So was Cory”. I watched as the nasty commenter and the defender tagged and responded to each other, and then more joined in, most defending Michele, but still perpetuating the offender. I don’t know why, but some weird part of me imagined Lea Michele grieving and receiving these notifications on her phone and it made me physically sick. I flagged all of the nasty commenter’s words as abusive content and selected “I don’t like this comment.” It immediately disappeared. The defender’s comments subsided. I watched as the rest of the comments returned to love. “I’m heartbroken” one comment said. The rest were crying and heart emoticons. This was 83 weeks ago and I still remember it like it was last night.

Bullying, and particularly cyber bullying, is not brand new. By pointing it out I’m not saying anything earth shattering here. You read the comments, you put your hand over your mouth in horror at some of the mean words that are written, you like it on Facebook, you reply back, you favorite it on Twitter, and hell, maybe you even write some of these harsh comments yourself. Maybe you type, “Go eat rocks you piece of shit,” and then you order Chinese food, or you call your best friend Ashley, or you watch the Jets game, or maybe you even kiss your sweet five-year-old daughter on the forehead and read her a bedtime story. You carry on with your life. But what if the person you wrote to doesn’t? What if they cry themselves to sleep? What if they take a razorblade to their wrist and their mother finds them dead in a pool of blood in the morning? What if you couldn’t hide behind a screen? What if you had to stand two inches away from that person, face-to-face, and look them in the eyes before you said, “Go eat rocks you piece of shit.”

Would you still do it?


According to the National Crime Victimization Survey of a 9th – 12th grade student population, it is estimated that about 2.2 million students experienced cyber bullying in 2011. 71.9% reported being cyber bullied once or twice in the school year, 19.6% reported once or twice a month, 5.3% reported once or twice a week, and 3.1% reported experiencing cyber bullying every day. According to the i-SAFE foundation from a study conducted from 2004-2010, more than 1 in 3 young people have experienced cyber threats online, over half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online, and the same number of people have engaged in cyber bullying. Well over half of young people do not tell their parents when cyber bullying occurs. So those numbers you just read only include those people who came forward and reported it. In a medium where self-expression is supposed to be encouraged, this speaks volumes about those who’ve felt pressure to become silent.

As a society, we’ve become completely detached from human interaction, which was, ironically, the point of social media – to bring us together even when we’re apart. Our daily variations and updates are brought to us via Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media websites and comment boards. This keeps our routines fresh. This is our entertainment. This is supposed to keep us connected. It is also our outlet and lens into the lives of others and their peek into ours.

How did social media and comment boards become our outlet for misguided anger and hatred? I’ve asked numerous people this question, and the answer is usually a variation of this: we live in the land of the free and we are free to express ourselves and say what we want. Yes, it’s true, it’s our first amendment, and more importantly, we have our brave men and women who’ve fought to protect that constitutional law. Think about that though: we have brave men and women who have gone to war, risked their lives, and perhaps even given their last breath to this country so that we may all live in peace and harmony. Are we?

Threatening someone’s family over a missed basketball shot sure isn’t peace and harmony. That’s not freedom of speech, that’s hate speech, which you are free to engage in, but disastrously and pointlessly so. Here’s the other issue: the Internet is instantaneous, which is why we don’t take more than a few beats to reflect on what we’re writing in a public forum or to each other, but we need to. We need to think more about the person/people on the receiving end, and we need to formulate our thoughts more pragmatically rather than in the heat of the moment.

Flickr / Adolfo Lujan
Flickr / Adolfo Lujan

It’s true that there is nothing in our constitution about bullying and the Internet. Perhaps that’s because our constitution was signed on September 17, 1787; the Internet was only invented in the early 1990s, Facebook was founded in 2004, YouTube in 2005, Twitter in 2006, and Instagram in 2010. These are relatively new platforms when considering the date our founding fathers sat down to write the policies. One of those is freedom of speech, and you are absolutely free to say anything mean via the web that you want to, but why would you want to?

The question isn’t whether or not you have freedom of speech; it’s what you want to use that freedom of speech toward. Freedom of speech is a hefty luxury we have in this country and we’re hurling it on message boards, attacking one another instead of questioning the world around us and creating meaningful conversations. Again, my quandary isn’t with free speech; it’s with hate speech and inarticulate word vomit. Free speech facilitates conversations and opens the doors to allow thoughts and opinions to flow fluidly and constructively in a dialectical manner. Hate speech is a one-sided march into the dark depths of wickedness and the vortex ofego.

Last Monday, I was sitting down with five co-workers and discussing the Academy Awards. We began talking about the jokes by Neil Patrick Harris, some funnier than others. I brought up the Edward Snowden joke: “He couldn’t be here for some treason.” I laughed and my co-workers fell silent. “It’s not very funny,” one co-worker said, matter-of-factly, “Snowden is a brave man.”

This began a heated 45 minute debate between me and my co-workers on patriotism, national security, the NSA as an entity, Citizen Four as a documentary, and the true meaning of free speech. Somewhere along those lines, one of our co-workers shoved his chair back and left in annoyance. I held my ground against the other four co-workers still seated, none of them agreeing with me on any issue, sometimes infuriating me, and I’m sure vice versa. In the end, we cleared our plates and went back to work. Fifteen minutes later, the co-worker who initially disagreed with me came over.

“Hot chocolate?” he asked.

I nodded. Another co-worker joined us. We walked to a café and all got hot chocolate or coffee. Throughout the rest of the week, we sent each other podcasts and shared new information on Facebook about the topics we discussed as well as other articles we each found interesting. And yes, we even discussed light emission and whether or not the dress was indeed white and gold or black and blue. It was invigorating. We had unintentionally ripped opened a floodgate for sharing and expressing our views without judgment or detrimental reactions. We were thanking each other for broadening our scopes of thinking; speaking even more freely, and challenging one another to think deeper about issues we might’ve never even grazed in the first place. Even the co-worker who got up and walked away began joining us for lunch again. We ultimately joked about the idea of starting a podcast. That’s free speech in action.

Flickr / jessamyn west
Flickr / jessamyn west

Last night I logged onto YouTube and typed in the name of a song I like. There was the artists’ version first and a cover of the song second. I clicked the second one and saw there was only one comment. The user simply wrote, “You suck.” Regardless of the performance or quality of the young woman’s voice, what compels someone to write such rude, unwarranted feedback? The sad part is, that comment is mild sauce compared to the heat people are packing on these message boards.

We like to use the old adage of sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me, but names do hurt, and people who post hateful comments count on that. How do you think that young woman feels with 236 views and those two words as the only comment? How is that even helpful? That’s what this young woman has to stare at each time she goes to check her view count. I flagged the crap out of that comment, marked it as abuse, checked “harassment or bullying,” checked “this is harassing someone else” (you may also check “this is harassing me”), and submitted it (It also yielded a warning which told me to “please contact local authorities if you or someone you know is in danger.” Two for you, Google! You go, Google!).

Unfortunately flagging a comment on YouTube doesn’t make it automatically disappear, so I clicked on the singer’s photo and saw an option to send her a message and I did. I told her that I flagged the comment and sent her a kind note encouraging her to continue singing and ignore the haters (I may have quoted Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”). I closed the window and instantly felt like justice had been served. Because if you’re going to argue that citizens have free speech, I’m going to argue that we could choose to be kinder and pick our words more carefully too.

While I’m at it, if we have free speech, we also have the freedom to patrol the Internet and control the conversation since it’s not technically government jurisdiction. Shouldn’t this be a round table? Shouldn’t we talk about this? If we’re going to write comments and say something, shouldn’t it be engaging and mentally stimulating? The girl is playing guitar, singing, and posting herself on a public platform, shouldn’t she be celebrated, or at the very least constructively critiqued, for her bravery and not given two words of tomfoolery as a result? That’s hate speech in action.

I’m not asking that the Internet be peppered with rainbows, sunshine, and glitter. (Please, no glitter. Glitter is the worst.) All I’m asking is that if you’re going to say something, say it intelligently and for mental stimulation. For youth’s sakes, please at least learn the difference between “your” and “you’re” and “they’re,” “their,” and “there.” There’s nothing more irksome than someone writing, “no, your an idiot, so their.” Swearing at each other and name-calling, particularly with bad grammar, doesn’t prove any point other than that you don’t actually have a point.


Here’s the morality of it all, America, only we can end cyber bullying and change the dialogue. According to The Family Resource Facilitation Program, in a U.S. poll of children (conducted in 2004), “90% of students don’t like to see someone bullied.” (I’m not sure what’s wrong with the other 10% of those students, but I digress.) This means that almost all of us feel some sort of remorse when viewing or writing these mean comments.

Oftentimes I see people on the message boards responding back. If someone says, “You’re dumb,” another person will respond, “Your more dumb” (because they don’t know grammar usually). This doesn’t accomplish anything at all. This doesn’t change the narrative or provoke new thoughts, this is simply seeing a fire and adding more firewood to watch the flames go higher and higher until the whole damn Internet feels a bit like an inferno. You know what would silence these bullies? Actually silencing them, making their comments disappear.

If you flag or delete a comment, nobody but you and the user will know it’s gone, and it’s removed forever. Nobody will have to respond to it, it will be erased from the Internet, and thrown into the anonymous black hole of hate, never to be seen again. That person may be warned or even disbarred, but really we don’t care what happens to them because they’re not part of these new, united great citizens of the Interwebs. And, if you’re not comfortable flagging or deleting a comment (we can’t all be heroes), asking a friend or guardian, or simply not responding is the near best option.

Disrespectful comments are very much like big brown bears – it’s not going to cause more of a scene and chase you down unless you begin poking it. If you aren’t going to tell the park ranger about the bear, at least for everyone else’s safety, don’t jab it.

Flickr / Dennis
Flickr / Dennis

According to The Family Resource Facilitation Program, in a U.S. poll of children (conducted in 2004),“Even though most bystanders don’t like to watch bullying, less than 20% try to stop it. This happens frequently because they don’t know what to do.” That was 2004 though, it’s 2015 now, and you know what to do (see previous paragraph if you’re scratching your head). You have the ability to hide behind your computer screens or PDAs and say something nasty and daft, therefore, you also have the ability to hide behind your computer screens or PDAs and become civilian soldiers for the promotion of respectful discourse and kindness.

This is the land of the free, home of the brave, full of opportunities that we need to seize immediately. You have a choice. I hope you join me in deleting or red flagging hatred and raising the ultimate white flag by choosing truce and speaking with integrity and respect. This is the internal battle normal citizens wage every day and we’ve got to start putting down our armor and turning it into amor. If you can’t say something pleasant, at least exercise ardent conversations full of analysis and free from malice. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Julia Gari Weiss is the recipient of the Academy of American Poet’s John B. Santoianni Award for Excellence in Poetry.

Keep up with Julia on Instagram, Twitter and juliagari.com

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