When Does Cyberbullying Become a Legal Issue?
by Riggs Abney Law Firm, Denver, Colorado
Online bullying has become a common event, with a 2017 Pew Research Center study reporting 66% of Americans have witnessed online harassment, and 41% of Americans reported being harassed themselves.1 The use of social media platforms to make repeated unwanted contact with the target is increasing among both adults and minors. The individuals engaged in the bullying behavior can be acquaintances, family members or strangers online. Bullies have been known to create multiple anonymous accounts to circumvent being banned, and target individuals across multiple platforms.
Cyberbullying itself can encompass a wide range of harassing and borderline-harassing behaviors, including:
- Repeatedly sending unwanted messages over social media
- Violation of restraining or protective orders
- Anonymous threats
- Publication of private contact information or intimate photos
- Spamming negative reviews on sites such as Yelp.
Consequences of cyberbullying
One escalation of cyberbullying which has been in the news lately, is Swatting. Swatting is when the police are notified of a fake hostage situation occurring in the victim’s home, resulting in a SWAT team being unnecessarily dispatched to a residence. This causes alarm, unnecessary use of SWAT resources, and has been known to result in deaths.2
The legal consequences for cyberbullying are contained within some state harassment statutes. The manner in which online harassment is covered by law is highly state specific. In Colorado, for instance, a highly publicized attempted suicide by a cyberbullied high school student led to the passage of Kiana Arellano’s law. Kiana’s law amended the harassment statute to include these cyberbullying behaviors:
- A person commits harassment if, with intent to harass, annoy, or alarm another person, he or she:
- Directly or indirectly initiates communication with a person or directs language toward another person, anonymously or otherwise, by telephone, telephone network, data network, text message, instant message, computer, computer network, computer system, or other interactive electronic medium in a manner intended to harass or threaten bodily injury or property damage, or makes any comment, request, suggestion, or proposal by telephone, computer, computer network, computer system, or other interactive electronic medium that is obscene.
Further, the statute provides that the harassment occurs at the location where it was made or received, allowing harassment charges against individuals to cross state lines. Despite this progress, law enforcement and prosecutors remain reluctant to enforce harassment laws against cyberbullying. Documenting and reporting such harassment is extremely important for individuals targeted in any state; however, presently it is often necessary for the targeted individual to take additional steps to protect themselves.
What can cyberbullying victims do?
If you or someone you know is the target of cyberbullying, there are steps you can take to protect yourself.
- Review the terms of service for each social media platform to identify when bullies violate the rules of the platform.
- Report such harassment to the platform on which it occurred. Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and other platforms each have a process to report messages which violate their terms of service.
- Utilize any blocking functions available on the platform to prevent the bullies from seeing or responding to your activities on the platform.
- Report anonymous accounts suspected to be run by the same individual.
- Document all threatening messages using website preservation sites such as archive.is, and retain screenshots of each communication as well, for use in any criminal or civil litigation which may arise.
- Threats to use explosives should be reported to the FBI.
- Notify your local police department of the possibility that you will be the target of Swatting to make them aware that such reports may not be genuine.
- When a student is bullying another, contact the school administration and make them aware of the situation.
The best tool to combat harassment is to seek legal help.
Proactively documenting harassment as it occurs, blocking and reporting all participating accounts, along with notifying the police all help prevent a single incident of online bullying from escalating into severe harassment. The best way to navigate the complicated laws surrounding cyberbullying is to know when to reach out for professional help.
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 https://www.pewinternet.org/2017/07/11/online-harassment-2017/ - Online Harassment, 2017; by Maeve Duggan, Pew Research Institute, July 11, 2017.