Cyber Harassment Laws: What Is/ Isn’t On The Books, Federal Vs. State Laws, And What’s On The Horizon
As we slip further into the new millennium, with social media and ever-increasing use of technology, and the booming popularity of the business, educational, and personal use of the Internet on a daily basis, life has never been so plugged in. With all of these new developments, influencing our daily lives as a societal whole comes the harsh reality that there are now even more avenues for bullies to exploit. Before the Internet and the explosion of social media amongst adolescents, those who wished to inflict harm on their peers mostly did so within the confines of school.
Though schools and those responsible for students often catch flak for failing to keep bullies reined in, there’s no doubt that social media sites are vastly under-regulated by comparison. Before, there was an end to the day, and bullies took off their bullying hats and went home. Now, bullies have access to a 24/7 outlet for vicious verbal assaults. The worst part about kids on social media? They still lack the wherewithal to truly understand the types of damage they can inflict upon other kids.
With the increase in social media being an outlet for kids still in school, the increase in bullying and harassment follows. Sadly, tragedies occur. The most noticeable and the most horrible instances occur when victims of this cyber harassment feel the only way to escape is by harming themselves or even taking their own lives. It’s sad, and it’s sadly true that it’s a matter so ingrained now in our society that we must address the issue with legal action.
Some states, thanks to grassroots organizations and handfuls of dedicated civil servants and concerned parents, have raised enough awareness to warrant cyber harassment laws at the state level. There are currently 41 states with cyber harassment laws (not including the laws in place in the U.S. Territory of Guam) prohibiting in some way/shape/form the harassment of others through social media and other means of online transmission. The nine states that don’t have any protections for individuals against cyber harassment are:
- New Jersey
*note: all of the states listed above do in fact have cyberstalking laws in place, but the differences in the language and definitions can make the punishment of bullies even harder in those nine states. Conversely, some of these nine states, such as New Jersey, have recently added laws that specifically target those engaging in cyberbullying.
The technical differences between cyberstalking and cyber harassment (sometimes used interchangeably with “cyberbullying”) begin with how they each are legally defined. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), Cyberstalking mainly refers to
the use of the Internet, email or other electronic communications to stalk, and generally refers to a series of threatening actions. Cyberstalking… the most serious of the types of online harassment.
The definition given by the NCSL considers cyberstalking as possibly the most severe of the types of harassment, but it only takes into account the physical harm that can come from the behaviour of the cyberstalker. If the mental or emotional harm was taken into account, cyber harassment is much more widespread amongst minors and college students and, given how unfortunately common it is, should be considered just as harmful.
Cyber harassment is classified by the NCSL as
not involving a realistic threat. Cyber harassment… threatening emails, IMs, blog submissions or websites dedicated solely to causing anguish for someone. Some states approach cyber harassment by including language discussing electronic communications in general harassment statutes, while others have made stand-alone laws.
It’s good to know that some states put cyber harassment on the same level as plain harassment, especially given how much of our lives are relatively open to the general public via social media. As a society, we shouldn’t stop there. Too many instances of kids killing themselves due to a lack of oversight on the matter of cyber harassment have already occurred. Also, kids that get bullied can be driven to extremes that not only affect them but their fellow students as well.
Consider the case of California teenager Bryan Oliver. Oliver took a shotgun to school and seriously injured one of his “tormenters” who bullied him. No, this is not a case of a bully ‘getting what he deserved’, because the bully was also a teenager who, though his harassment was uncalled for and inappropriate, was making a mistake that is correctable by education and, if need be, legal punishment.
And this isn’t an isolated case of a bully being targeted by one of their victims, it happens all the time across the country. Recently in the state of Washington, an 11-year-old middle school student brought a handgun, over 400 rounds of ammo, and multiple knives to school. These incidents put the victims themselves in harm’s way, as well as innocent bystanders and misguided bullies alike.
With different instances of cyber harassment occurring across the country, it’s amazing the federal government hasn’t addressed the issue with laws. It is suggested that these types of laws, per the U.S. Constitution, should be handled by the states and the federal government should stay out of it. This is problematic when you consider the role of the federal government via the Department of Education in the public school system, which is why grassroots organizations in all 50 states are so important to the continuing effort of raising awareness and keeping schools on their toes.
In the end, with minors involved the focus has to go back to the schools. Cyber harassment amongst minors initially stems from events that take place during school, and teachers and supervisors of students must not only be made aware of these online threats but also know that their communities support them in carrying out punishment at the school level.
There is hope for those seeking justice against those accused of cyber harassment. Recently in New Jersey, one of the states with new laws on the books, there was a successful prosecution against a case of cyber harassment or cyberbullying. The case involved a 15-year-old sending a Facebook message to the victim involving threats of physical abuse and the victim being killed.
The victim, only in middle school, reported the message, and the case moved forward from there. After pleading guilty, the 15-year-old bully is now on probation for a year and must complete community service as punishment for her actions. On top of that, the guilty defendant has to agree to a curfew, attend anger management classes, and complete an anti-cyberbullying training course.
It’s important to know your own state’s cyber harassment laws, and even more important to speak up if those laws don’t exist, or are too difficult to enforce. Active parents and communities can lead to more attentive politicians and teachers, putting the issue out in the open for everyone to take notice of. Remember: the laws are just words on the page without active members of society fleshing them out.