What is cyberbullying and is it a crime?

“Cyberbullying” is a new term in our vocabulary, one that has social and legal definitions. The term was developed to address a form of harassment somewhat similar to the old concept of the school yard bully, but with actions confined to digital and technical forms of communication such as internet, texting, and email communication. This term is typically limited to only describe interactions between minors, which are intended to bully, harass, threaten, humiliate or demean another child or teen. If an adult is involved in the interaction, the term is referred to as cyberharassment or cyberstalking.

Perhaps the most well-known case involving online harassment is the case of Megan Taylor Meier, who committed suicide as a result of bullying by Lori Drew, the mother of a classmate of Megan’s. Drew impersonated a teenage boy pretending to care about Megan. Once trust was gained, Drew began bullying and humiliating Meier, who had a history of depression and self-esteem issues. Meier’s parents learned about the impersonation and contacted authorities about Drew’s activities. The FBI investigated for nearly one year and in 2008, subsequently charged Drew with three counts of felony unauthorized computer access, under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The charges were the first in the country in a cyber-bullying case. Drew was ultimately acquitted of the more serious charges and convicted of misdemeanors, receiving only probation and a fine. Her attorneys are appealing the decision claiming that Drew’s actions violating terms of service are not criminal.

Other types of cyberharassment or cyberstalking have occurred, with cases involving adults who have met on chat sites or internet dating sites. These cases may involve a series of repeated communications or actions through a digital, online or technical form of communication including instant messaging, discussion boards or online forums. The actions may be anything from defamatory or derogatory comments to sending unsolicited emails or viruses. As with cyberbullying, the intent is to harass, intimidate or threaten another adult. These types of cases have been referred to as “mental assault.” Other examples of cyberharassment have included parents in heated custody disputes who have taken to the internet to criticize their former spouses or in some cases, the ex’s new significant other. These actions can have serious detrimental effects to the harassing party, with court’s accepting information from social networking sites, emails and texts as evidence in cases.

One thing cyberbullying is not is any situation in which an adult solicits or lures a minor for sexual exploitation.

The effects of cyberbullying are often cumulative as most occurrences are rarely single communications. Usually, it involves multiple interactions or communications, which may escalate. In many situations minors involved are using lewd or inappropriate language, which is tantamount to a game of name-calling in a more sophisticated medium. However, in some situations, the taunts have become threats of bodily harm or death, which are obviously more serious than posts intended to embarrass or humiliate.

With the precedence of the Drew case, cyberbullying or cyberharassment may result in misdemeanor or felony charges. If a minor is involved in cyberbullying, he or she may be charged with juvenile delinquency. In typical cases which have not escalated, it is more common to see email, text or instant messaging accounts suspended or closed for violation of service terms of the provider or host. If password theft or hacking was involved in any cyber crime, it may lead to more serious charges with greater penalties due to violation of other state and federal laws protecting identity.

Schools are drawn into the enforcement of cyberbullying since it is a progression of traditional bullying which occurs within the school dynamic. However, lawsuits resulted from schools attempting to discipline students or enforce for behavior which took place away from school or outside of school hours. Thos suits have alleged the school’s actions violated a student’s free speech right. They also, often lose. However, parents whose children have been victims of cyberbullying have consistently implored schools to assist in enforcement and education to prevent cyberbullying. Another term to come out of this developing area is cyberethics, which more schools are implementing in student handbooks. Schools have been successful in litigation by asserting that a student’s off-campus activities may be disciplined if the activity adversely affects the safety and well-being of a bullied student while in school. Ultimately, the question for schools is whether or not this a contractual or a constitutional issue.

Please contact JHDJ Law at 317-569-0770 for more information about cyberbullying or this blog post.

The above is for informational purposes only should not be considered legal advice. Each case is unique and you should consult an attorney for advice regarding your particular situation.

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