University Defeats Cyberbullying Lawsuit Related to Yik Yak–Feminist Majority v. UMW

The plaintiffs are students that run a feminist group at the University of Mary Washington, a public university in Virginia. In response to their public advocacy, they claim that they were cyberbullied via Yik Yak. (Examples of the posted Yaks: “these feminists need to chill their tits,” “I fucking hate feminists and sour vaginas,” “femicunts,” “feminazis,” “cunts,” “bitches,” “hoes,” “dikes,” “Gonna tie these feminists to the radiator and grape them in the mouth,” “Dandy’s about to kill a bitch … or two,” and “Can we euthanize whoever caused this bullshit?”). Some posts included the students’ name and location on campus.

The students told the university administration the cyberbullying made them feel unsafe. The students asked the university to ban Yik Yak on campus and block it on the wifi network. The university declined on First Amendment grounds. The students sued the university for discrimination. The court granted the university’s motion to dismiss.

Title IX. “the harassment took place in a context over which UMW had limited, if any, control—anonymous postings on Yik Yak. Nevertheless, UMW attempted to take some action, such as holding sharing circles to discuss the issue of cyberbullying. Further, when a yak targeted a member of Feminists United specifically and made her feel unsafe attending meetings on campus, a UMW police officer attended the meetings. While UMW did not take the specific action requested by the plaintiffs, Title IX does not require funding recipients to meet the particular remedial demands of its students. This holds true especially where some of the actions requested—such as banning Yik Yak from the campus wireless network—may have exposed the university to liability under the First Amendment.”

Equal Protection. “the plaintiffs have not alleged that UMW treated them differently than any other similarly situated students, or that UMW acted with any sort of discriminatory animus. Indeed, the plaintiffs allege that other students and student groups at UMW also experienced cyberbullying through Yik Yak.”

The court summarizes:

As social media has proliferated, cyberbullying has become a national problem. This holds especially true in situations where bullies can hide behind the cloak of anonymity, a protection that the traditional schoolyard setting did not afford. Solutions are not easy or obvious to anyone. In seeking solutions, however, schools cannot ignore other rights vital to this country, such as the right to free speech.

This lawsuit got some press when it was first filed because of the high interest in curbing cyberbullying. However, lawsuits against universities for the operation of independent Internet services isn’t the way to go. Indeed, the denouement is anti-climatic in light of Yik Yak’s demise. As we’ve seen over and over again, services that enable free-for-all conversations rarely survive in the long run. (E.g., JuicyCampus, People’s Dirt and AutoAdmit). To wit, this lawsuit lasted longer than Yik Yak did.

Prof. Eugene Volokh says about this ruling:

I do think that the threats on Yik Yak are classic examples of thuggery aimed at suppressing speech (here, the Feminist United students’ speech); and the nonsubstantive personal insults, while themselves constitutionally protected, should be condemned — both because they are rude and empty, and because they tend to deter people from participating in debates. If people, left, right and center, know that speaking out will yield a massive campaign of insults, many might be deterred from speaking, whether those insults are just personal slurs, or substance-free and hyperbolic charges of “feminazi” or “fascist.”

Nonetheless, a public university can’t block otherwise available student access to an entire privately operated communication platform, just because a few students are using that platform in ways that are rude, harmful to public debate, or even outright criminal. Such a block is a classic prior restraint — here, an attempt to categorically block all use of a communications mechanism in order to prevent some users’ misuse — and that’s true for forums opened on government property (such as government-run wireless networks) and not just for speech on private property.

Case citation: Feminist Majority Foundation v. University of Mary Washington, 2017 WL 4158787 (E.D. Va. Sept. 19, 2017). The complaint. The plaintiffs’ complaint to the OCR.