Until the mid-2000s there were no specific laws considering cyberbullying activities. But legislators have considered increasing number of school violence, self-harm or suicides among teenagers. Some states preferred to leave this matter in the hand of school and there have been some restrictions towards cyberbullying in schools. In these cases, cyberbullying is often threated as a civil matter rather than a criminal one.
Is cyberbullying a crime?
“Yes, there can be legal consequences,” says attorney and founder of Carter Law Firm, Ruth Carter. To decide if cyberbullying is a crime or not, it’s necessary to focus on the circumstances. Some of cyberbullying acts end up in civil court, and others might have warrant prosecution for hate crimes, criminal charges, harassment…
Nowadays many schools have established some rules and policies about cyberbullying. No school wants suicide or serious physical injuries to happen under their supervision. Now with all the awareness, cyberbullying can get the bullies in court, get them expelled, fired, or in major cases, arrested. It’s important to acknowledge that what’s published on the internet, stays on the internet forever. Posts and comments don’t get deleted and even if they do, they have been seen before. Cyberbullies have to keep in mind that they might lose their job due to something they post and thought was funny. Employers do background research nowadays. Even if they think they can stay anonymous, cyber-police can track them down.
When does cyberbullying become a crime?
According to Stomp Out Bullying, Bullying and cyberbullying can become a crime if you:
- Physically assault someone
- Harass someone especially if the harassment is based on gender or racism
- Make violent threats
- Make death threats
- Make obscene and harassing phone calls and texts
- Sextortion which is sexual exploitation
- Child pornography
- Stalk someone
- Commit hate crimes
- Take a photo of someone in a place where they expect privacy
According to stopbullying.gov, there is no federal law that specifically applies to bullying. In some cases, when bullying is based on race or ethnicity, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion, bullying overlaps with harassment, and schools are legally obligated to address it.
US States law
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 has aged twenty-one or older. Penalties also increase if the defendant has a prior harassment conviction.
The penalties for cyber bullying
Depending on the state laws, the penalties for a cyberbully can range from school suspension or expulsions to jail time.