Young people have always encountered bullying, but cyberbullying—bullying that occurs in an electronic format—has become more prevalent than ever before. This phenomenon is more common due to the use of social media sites and texting as integral parts of social interaction among teens. What many don't realize, though, is that cyberbullying can cross the line to criminal conduct.
This article discusses Kentucky's laws concerning cyberbullying and cyberharassment. These include state criminal statutes regarding harassment and other related crimes.
Yes, it can be. Depending on the conduct involved, acts of cyberbullying may fall under Kentucky's crimes of harassing communications, doxing, or stalking.
Below are the penalties for crimes relating to acts of cyberbullying or cyberharassment in Kentucky.
Kentucky makes it a crime to harass another person by using electronic communications that have no legitimate purpose to intentionally annoy, alarm, harass, or intimidate a victim. Electronic forms of communication include cell phones, smartphones, and computers. It also includes instances of students electronically communicating with or about another student knowing that the communication isn't legitimate and will place the other student in fear of physical harm, humiliation, or embarrassment. Harassing communications constitute a class B misdemeanor, which carries penalties of up to 90 days in jail and a $250 fine.
A separate law makes it a violation for a student to harass others by creating a hostile environment in school through any type of communication that causes other students to fear harm, humiliation, or embarrassment. Violations are fine-only offenses.
A more serious form of cyberbullying occurs when the unlawful behavior escalates to the point of stalking. Stalking involves a pattern of conduct directed against a specific person or persons—conduct that would cause the average person to suffer substantial mental distress.
Second-degree stalking. A person commits stalking in the second degree by intentionally making a threat (explicit or implicit) against a victim with the intent to place that person in reasonable fear of sexual contact, physical injury, or death. When a bad actor engages in this conduct in the digital context, it becomes cyberstalking. Stalking in the second degree constitutes a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $500 fine.
First-degree stalking. Under certain circumstances, cyberstalking can become a felony offense. Second-degree stalking increases to a first-degree offense if the defendant has a history of harming the same victim, as evidenced by a prior conviction, a protective order being in place, or a pending criminal complaint. Possessing a deadly weapon while stalking also carries first-degree penalties. First-degree stalking constitutes a Class D felony, which carries penalties of one to five years in prison and a $1,000 to $10,000 fine.
Disseminating personally identifying information online can also result in criminal charges when done to harass another. This crime—commonly called doxing—involves intentionally posting information online about a person or their immediate family or household member with the intent of intimidating, abusing, threatening, harassing, or frightening them and causing them to fear physical injury to themselves or an immediate family or household member.
Penalties for doxing range from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class B felony depending on the consequences of the crime.
Common defenses to charges of harassment or stalking include claiming that free speech protections apply or establishing that a victim's reaction was unreasonable.
Free speech. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and expression, but this protection is not absolute. Speech that poses an immediate threat to others is not protected. Nonviolent and non-threatening speech or conduct is generally protected even if it's unpopular or offensive to others. The line between protected speech and unprotected speech can be a fine one and may be worth exploring as a defense if there's ambiguity.
Unreasonable reaction. Kentucky's harassment and stalking laws require proof that the victim's fearful reaction was reasonable. If a victim had a hypersensitive reaction to the conduct involved, a defendant may have a defense that the prosecution cannot meet its burden of proving all the elements of the crime. For instance, being upset over a rude and nasty comment does not rise to the level of reasonably fearing for one's safety.
Teens who commit offenses when they are younger than 18 generally fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court in Kentucky. Adult teens go to adult court.
Juvenile court judges tend to have more options to punish a juvenile offender than they do in adult court. If adjudicated delinquent in juvenile court, the judge can order individual or family counseling, treatment or programming, probation, home detention, driver's license suspension, detention, restitution, or removal from home, among other things. Kentucky law also provides for pre-adjudication alternatives, including diversion and informal adjustment, which both result in a dismissal if the juvenile completes the required conditions.
A teenager who committed an offense at age 18 or 19 will face charges in adult court. While sentencing alternatives are also available in adult court, so is jail or prison time, as well as substantial fines.
Cyberbullying and cyberharassment can incur serious fines and substantial incarceration time for a guilty defendant. If you have been arrested for or charged with a related crime, contact a local criminal defense attorney right away.
(Ky. Rev. Stat. §§ 508.130, 508.140, 508.150, 525.070, 525.080, 525.085, 532.060, 532.090, 534.040, 610.010, 610.030, 610.105, 635.010, 635.020, 640.010 (2023).)