Online Harassment & Cyberbullying

When does something become Cyberbullying?

It used to be that bullies and harassers spewed venom while loitering on street corners. Nowadays, they can exploit the anonymity and the global reach of the Internet to torment and persecute you and your loved ones. All too often, victims of online harassment blame themselves, asking what they might have done differently to have prevented this abuse. But it isn’t’ your fault. And you don’t have sit back and take it.

Cyberbullying is a major problem in today’s hyper-connected world. While children and teens of previous decades had to contend with schoolyard bullying and potentially prank phone calls, bullying in today’s world is a different animal. Online bullying can affect the child or teen at all hours of the day and in any location. Where kids used to be able to retreat into the safety of their home or room in decades past, even this former sanctuary can be breached by online insults and bullying.

Dealing with cyberbullying often requires a multifaceted approach. One of the steps required to deal with cyberbullying often includes the removal of the false, humiliating, and defamatory posts. Taking this step can stop the spread of vicious and vile rumors from doing any further harm. However, because cyberbullying is a serious issue and may create issues involving the school district and criminal liability, content removal should proceed under the watchful eye of an attorney who can proceed strategically and methodically while preserving evidence.

What Is Cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is essentially any type of bullying that takes place online or through technological means. 

Online harassment can take many forms: Sometimes bullies send wounding or threatening messages via email, text messages, group texts, and iMessage. Cyberbullying can occur on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other sites. Others spread lies or vicious rumors electronically though online message boards, online chat rooms, and in a variety of other locations. There are harassers who impersonate their target by creating fake social media or email accounts. Still others post (or threaten to post) photographs or videos of a sensitive or intimate nature to hurt, shame or extort money. 

Essentially, cyberbullying is any means of electronic communication that can be used to:

  • threaten
  • intimidate
  • harass
  • or transmit insults

Many times, the harassment will utilize a number of these electronic devices together.

Cyberbullying isn’t just a phase that all kids must endure. Studies show cyberbullying can cause depression and long-term psychological scars in children. You can’t just wait for the problem to go away.

What Are the Consequences of Cyberbullying?

The consequences of cyberbullying can range in severity from hurt self-esteem to increasingly dire consequences. Kids and teens who are bullied may end up losing friends and facing a narrowed social circle. They may experience a significant amount of anxiety, fear, and other emotional consequences. Due to the nature of cyberbullying that can reach a target at any time and at any place, they may feel a sense of vulnerability and like nowhere is safe. In particularly severe cases of cyberbullying or when the target is especially affected by the insults and abuse disastrous consequences may follow. If cyberbullying is not handled, it can result in particularly dire consequences. The target of the abuse may engage in violent means or he or she may attempt to injure or kill themselves as a cry for help.

Cyber Bullying can Cross the Line into Criminal Conduct

It is important to note that in a number of cases cyberbullying can cross the line into criminal behavior. What exactly constitutes a criminal act in relation to cyberbullying depends on the state that you reside in. Some states have enacted specific statutes that criminalize cyberbullying.  For instance, New Jersey passed a “cyber-harassment” law in January 2014, that prohibits “making a communication in an online capacity via any electronic device or through a social networking site and with the purpose to harass another” when threatening harm, sending lewd or indecent materials, and in other circumstances.

However, even in states that do not have specific online harassment or cyberbullying statutes, online harassment can cross the line into criminal conduct when it involves:

  • Making violent threats that place the target in fear of harm.
  • Sending sexual pictures (sexting)
  • Committing hate crimes
  • Harassing someone because of their race, religion, gender, or other aspects that may be covered under hate speech laws
  • Using embarrassing information or false information in an extortion scheme
  • Stalking
  • Making death threats against a victim
  • Making constant and repeated threats or obscene communications
  • Actually physically attacking or assaulting the target of the online threats

These and other acts can elevate cyberbullying into crimes. If your child is the victim of acts of this type, you may have additional legal options.

Victims of online harassment are often afraid or ashamed to come forward. That’s especially true when the persecution is sexual in nature or involves information, photographs, or videos that were originally intended to be private.

But you don’t have to suffer in silence. Know that if you are being harassed, stalked, or threatened online, it’s never your fault. You have a right to control your digital space and identity — as well as your photographs and videos.

Cyberbullying Litigation: Legal Precedents and Victim’s Options

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr are intended to promote creativity and communication, but in recent years they have become venues for kids and teenagers to extend aggressive bullying beyond the confines of the schoolyard. Cyberbullying on the Internet or through text and mobile phone applications opens up a new world of ambiguity that students, teachers, parents, and legal professionals are still struggling to discern.

Cyberbullying reaches far beyond the recent media attention and bold headlines featuring the names of Tyler Clementi, Megan Meier, and Ryan Halligan. In 2011, the non-profit Enough is Enough found that in the last year 43% of teenagers aged 13-17 had been the victim of cyberbullying. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more recently found in a comprehensive survey of high school aged teenagers that one in six has been bullied in the last year.

The ramifications of Cyberbullying can be severe when coupled with the fact that the same age group considers suicide at alarming rates. In the case of Tyler Clementi, whose private life was the target of roommate Dharun Ravi, the cyberbullying he experienced preceded his suicide. When the case against Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei came to trial, the basis of the indictment was on charges of invasion of privacy. New Jersey had no specific statute that covered cyberbullying and the prosecution’s use of the phrase, “invasion of privacy” drew fire from a few constitutional scholars who considered the charge a vast overreach. This case displayed the lack of determinant legal precedent when it comes to cyberbullying.

 

Statutes that Offer Protection Against Cyberbullying

There are three statutes that have been identified by law professors as being as close as one can get to federal protection against cyberbullying: Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Title IX is primarily used by families whose educational institutions willfully ignored and/or did not properly investigate bullying which resulted in emotional distress that hurt the student’s educational opportunities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act is used as a defense by those students who have a disability, were bullied, and can prove that the harassment was due to an official government or institutional policy. And finally, the Civil Rights Act’s application to cyberbullying cases has been supported in the lower courts when the prosecution is able to prove attacks based on race, religion, or gender coupled with the fact that the school district had knowledge of the harassment and did not take significant steps to combat it.

The most recent case that successfully upheld the Civil Rights Act in the context of cyberbullying was that of Anthony Zeno. Anthony was a high school student at Stissing Mountain High School in Dutchess County. During his full-time at the school, he was harassed, physically assaulted, and met with death threats regularly. The administration responded with delayed half-hearted attempts, according to the courts. Anthony was awarded $1 million as a payout for his harassment.

Aside from federal protection, each state has its own specific anti-bullying legislation. Furthermore, aside from state laws, local school districts tend to write anti-bullying clauses into their rules and codes. A total of 49 states have specific anti-bullying laws, Montana being the only state that lacks this specific legislation. Within those 49 states, 17 have specific provisions for “cyberbullying” and 47 have provisions for “electronic harassment”. Finally, only 11 states have statutes that protect against off-campus behaviors. You can find out more about what protection your state offers at the Cyberbullying Research Center’s real-time updated comprehensive study of state cyberbullying laws.

Within those 49 states, 17 have specific provisions for “cyberbullying” and 47 have provisions for “electronic harassment”. Finally, only 11 states have statutes that protect against off-campus behaviors. You can find out more about what protection your state offers at the Cyberbullying Research Center’s real-time updated comprehensive study of state cyberbullying laws.

 

Legal Options

If you are a parent or guardian of a child victim of cyberbullying, there are a few options that you ought to exhaust before moving onto the courts. Firstly, set ground rules to take measures to protect against cyberbullying. This includes properly educating your child about responsible social media use, filtering undesirable sites, and monitoring internet activity.

Preventative steps are just as crucial for parents of a bully. Active involvement in setting rules and teaching children that there is no difference between how you treat someone online or offline are critical lessons that all children ought to learn and obey.

Once you are aware that cyberbullying is taking place, it is imperative that your child has the confidence and trust to confide in you and allows you to see the types of attacks against him or her. At this point, collecting a portfolio of screen shots, message logs, downloaded files, etc. is critical to building your case if the bullying goes unpunished and does not subside. You can take this log of information to school administrators and the school board, and finally the courts.

If sufficient action is not taken at the school level, and you have demonstrated proof of that fact, you can take it to court under the federal statutes discussed above. Many students and parents have found that civil lawsuits are less of an uphill battle compared to constitutional cases on cyberbullying that drag on for long periods.

 

Types of civil suits that parents can file are as follows:

  1. Invasion of privacy
  2. Causation of physical or mental harm
  3. Defamation
  4. Threats that are unprotected by the First Amendment
  5. Intentionally causing emotional distress
  6. Spreading libel

 

When filling any of the lawsuits detailed above, parents can file for a simultaneous injunction or a court order mandating that the bully in question stop harassing the prosecution. In these cases, the parents of the bully can be liable monetarily. In Ohio, for example, parents can be sued for up to $15,000 in certain civil cases.

Pursuing a path involving the courts can be risky, time intensive, and expensive. However, in many cases, the courts have held the parents, students, and/or school district responsible in the case of cyberbullying. Obtaining legal counsel that is familiar with the approach in these cases is highly recommended when venturing into the field of cyberbullying, as the topic remains young, undefined, and inconsistent between courts.

Looking to Remove Online Cyberbullying Posts?

If you are looking to remove online posts that target your son and daughter, the Internet cyberbullying and defamation removal Aaron Minc of Meyers Roman Friedberg & Lewis LPA may be able to fight for you. We understand that cyberbullying raises an array of issues and will proceed aggressively and strategically to protect your child. To schedule a free and confidential consultation call (216) 373-7706 or schedule a meeting online below.

At the law firm of Meyers Roman Friedberg & Lewis, LPA we will apply the full weight of the law to stop online harassers and bullies in their tracks. We’ve developed a comprehensive approach deploying every legal means to remove embarrassing and intimidating content and to punish the offenders.

When you contact the online harassment experts at Meyers Roman Friedberg & Lewis, LPA, we’ll hear you out carefully and empathetically.

Then we’ll come up with a swift plan of action that may include:

  • Suing the harasser for monetary damages
  • Obtaining restraining orders
  • Contacting law enforcement to report any criminal activity
  • Formally contacting schools and workplaces so they can take administrative action
  • Erasing damaging online content
  • Forcing creators of fake profiles to take them down
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Cyberbullying Litigation: Legal Precedents and Victim’s Options

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr are intended to promote creativity and communication, but in recent years they have become venues for kids and teenagers to extend aggressive bullying beyond the confines of the schoolyard....
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