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Cyberbullying Laws

Bullying is hardly a new problem. In recent years, however, it has moved from the school grounds and school bus to social networking sites and text messages. Cyberbullying is the use of the Internet or mobile technology to harass, intimidate, or cause harm to another. Nearly all states have bullying laws in place to address traditional bullying. A growing number have online bullying or electronic harassment provisions.

This article discusses cyberbullying laws, how they differ among the states, and how these offenses are charged.

Why Is Cyberbullying Such a Serious Problem?

Cyberbullying can be as traumatizing, if not more traumatizing than traditional forms of bullying.

  • It is persistent. Cyberbullying victims can be messaged or attacked at any hour of the day or night.
  • It is ever-present. Bullying communications are right on the victim's phone, in group chats, on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Cyberbullying is also found in gaming communities.
  • It is permanent. As the saying goes, "the internet is forever." Unflattering images and defamatory lies can have an influence on every area of a young person's life.
  • It is less visible to adults. School officials and parents might see physical bruises if a child is attacked at school, but they might not ever see what happens on a cell phone or in an internet community.

Cyberbullying attacks on a young person's character and self-esteem become a source of emotional distress. They can cause embarrassment, shame, anxiety, and depression. Cyberbullying has been implicated in a number of teen suicides.

For example, a high school student takes an unflattering picture of a classmate. They send it to all of her friends (via mobile phone) with hurtful comments. Then the targeted student is teased by dozens of classmates. Instead of having to deal with one bully, the victim now faces cyber-harassment from a group of people. The photo goes viral, attracting attention from strangers who join in the teasing, creating a terrible situation for a young person who is excruciatingly attuned to peer pressure. The results can be tragic.

In 2017, the parents of 12-year-old Mallory Grossman filed a lawsuit against their daughter's Rockaway Township school district for gross negligence. The parents said they repeatedly told school officials about the texts, Snapchat, and Instagram bullying. They also considered suing the parents of the cyberbullying peers.

Common Cyberbullying Tactics

According to StopBullying.gov, cyberbullying can take many forms. including:

  • Posting a mean or unflattering picture or video of a classmate
  • Posting rumors (or starting rumors) on a social media platform
  • Threatening people via text message
  • Outing someone for their sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Sending messages telling someone to kill themselves
  • Pretending to be someone else online in order to friend, and then expose someone

Is Cyberbullying a Crime?

Until the mid-2000s, there were no specific cyberbullying laws. But, legislators have not been blind to the increasing number of high-publicized incidents of suicide and school violence. Some states leave law enforcement in the hands of school officials. In such cases, cyberbullying is often treated as a civil, rather than a criminal matter.

Some criminal prosecutors have been able to use existing criminal harassment laws to prosecute cyberbullies in public schools. Now, nearly half of U.S. states include "cyberbullying" in their broader bullying or harassment laws. Most states also include a prohibition on "electronic harassment."

The trend is to hold offenders accountable for bullying behavior on- and off-campus, but only about a dozen states have school sanctions for cyberbullying actions committed off-campus. Depending on the state, victims may be able to seek remedies in civil courts or try to convince criminal prosecutors to take the behavior seriously enough to consider criminal charges.

Examples of State Cyberbullying Laws

Most states have school sanctions for cyberbullying or electronic harassment in general. Below is a sampling of state laws addressing cyberbullying:

  • California: Bullying in an educational facility includes communications by electronic means. The Safe Place to Learn Act, along with other code sections, establishes a student's "inalienable right to attend classes on school campuses that are safe, secure, and peaceful." The use of an electronic device to cause someone to fear for their life (an extreme form of bullying) can be charged as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
  • Florida: Florida's "Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act" prohibits bullying of any K-12 student or staff member. It specifically references cyberbullying, or "bullying through the use of technology or any electronic communication". The law does not include criminal sanctions. It directs school districts to draft policies and to report instances of bullying. Schools can suspend or expel students found guilty of bullying. Unfortunately, enforcement varies from district to district. Some schools have used cyberbullying rules to punish students who report sexual assault.
  • Missouri: Cyberbullying is defined by Missouri statute as including, but not limited to "a message, text, sound, or image by means of an electronic device." School employees are required to report instances of bullying. An individual who uses social media to bully another person with violent threats may be charged with harassment. Offenses are normally misdemeanors, but could be charged as a Class E felony if the victim is a minor and the defendant is aged twenty-one or older. Penalties also increase if the defendant has a prior harassment conviction.

What Are the Penalties for Cyberbullying Cases?

The main difference among state cyberbullying laws is whether sanctions are administrative or criminal. Florida requires school policies but does not define criminal charges. Missouri can charge a cyberbullying offender in criminal court, but only for violent threats.

So, depending on the state laws, the penalties for a cyberbully can range from school suspension or expulsions to jail time.

While parents whose children have been bullied want a stricter approach to bullying, civil rights organizations like the ACLU criticize the use of the criminal justice system to inflict penalties on children. They tend to advocate that student behavior problems can be handled by school administration.

The Department of Health & Human Services offers tips on bullying prevention and anti-bullying policies at its StopBullying.gov website.

Learn More About Cyberbullying Laws From an Attorney

Cyberbullying is a rapidly evolving area of law, and the laws vary from state to state. If you or someone close to you has been charged with cyberbullying, get legal advice from an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area. They can explain the current state of cyberbullying and harassment laws in your state.

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