The term "cyberbullying" refers to the use of Internet and/or mobile technology to harass, intimidate, or cause harm to another. Although bullying is hardly a new problem, it has moved from the schoolyard to social networking sites such as Facebook, emails, and mobile text messages. Nearly all states have bullying laws in place, many with cyberbullying or electronic harassment provisions.
This article covers cyberbullying laws, how they differ among the states, and how offenses are charged.
Why is Cyberbullying Such a Serious Problem?
Despite the absence of physical contact or audible insults, cyberbullying can be even more traumatizing than traditional forms of bullying. Through social media and mobile communications, bullying can now potentially be viewed by all of a child's friends, family, and acquaintances. As a result, the embarrassment, shame, and other more severe consequences of bullying can become even more severe.
Consider, for example, if a high school student takes an unflattering picture of a classmate and sends it to all of her friends (via mobile phone) with hurtful comments. Suddenly, the target student is being teased by more than half of her classmates. So instead of one instance of bullying, it often takes on a life of its own.
The Department of Health & Human Services offers information and tips for preventing cyberbullying at its StopBullying.gov website.
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-publicity incidents, including tragic results in certain cases (suicides and school shootings, for instance). Laws have sprung up in some states, but many of these law often leave enforcement in the hands of school officials. As such, cyberbullying may often be treated as a civil, rather than a criminal matter.
However, prosecutors have used existing laws on the books to prosecute individuals suspected of cyberbullying. Criminal harassment statutes can often provide a basis for bringing charges in severe cases, and more serious criminal charges have been brought in cases where the offense has resulted in suicide or other tragic consequences.
Recently created cyber harassment statutes may also provide an avenue for charging online bullies in some states. Nearly half of U.S. states include "cyberbullying" in their broader bullying laws (PDF), while most states also include either "cyberbullying" or "electronic harassment" as well. The nationwide trend is toward greater accountability for bullying in general, both in school and off campus, including criminal statutes.
Victims in most states may seek remedies in civil court in some situations.
Examples of State Cyberbullying Laws
Although cyberbullying is considered a relatively new form of harassment and intimidation, most state have school sanctions (and some have criminal penalties) for cyberbullying or electronic harassment in general. However, only about a dozen of those states have school sanctions for acts of cyberbullying committed off-campus. Below is a sampling of state laws addressing cyberbullying:
- California - State law defines "bullying" in the context of an educational facility to include "communications … by means of an electronic act," while the Safe Place to Learn Act, along with other code sections, establish a student’s "inalienable right to attend classes on school campuses that are safe, secure, and peaceful." The use of "an electronic communication device" to cause someone to fear for their life is 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, including specific references to cyberbullying (defined as "bullying through the use of technology or any electronic communication"). The law doesn't include criminal sanctions for such acts, but directs school districts to draft policies and to report instances of bullying.
- Missouri - Cyberbullying is defined by Missouri statute as bullying "through the transmission of a communication including, but not limited to, a message, text, sound, or image by means of an electronic device;" school employees are required to report any known instances of bullying. An individual who uses social media to bully another person (with violent threats, specifically) may be charged with harassment, a Class A misdemeanor, but this becomes a Class D felony if the victim is 17 or younger (and the defendant is 21 or older) or if the defendant has a prior harassment conviction.
What Are the Penalties for Cyberbullying?
The penalties are as wide-ranging as the laws discussed above. Depending on the state and applicable cyberbullying laws, sanctions could range anywhere from civil penalties, such as school intervention via suspensions and/or expulsions, to jail time for felonies and even some misdemeanors.
In fact, the main points of difference among state cyberbullying laws has to do with administrative vs. criminal sanctions for violations. For instance, Florida law doesn't include criminal charges but directs schools to enact administrative penalties such as suspension and expulsion for acts of cyberbullying. But Missouri courts, on the other hand, may charge offenders for violent threats made through social media or other electronic means.
Learn More About Cyberbullying Laws From an Attorney
Cyberbullying is a rapidly evolving area of law, and the laws will vary from state to state. If you or someone close to you has been charged with cyberbullying, it may be wise to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney who can help explain the current state of the law and how it impacts your case.