While bullying has always been particularly problematic among teenagers, cyberbullying—bullying that occurs in an electronic format—can be even more harmful. With the widespread use of social media and text messaging, this problem may be the most dangerous form of bullying to date. What many may not realize is that it can also be a crime. And if a person's repeated bullying causes someone to fear for their or their family's safety, those acts can be considered stalking or cyberstalking, which can result in even more serious consequences.
This article discusses laws that prohibit and penalize cyberbullying and cyberstalking in Georgia.
Georgia law prohibits both harassing communications and stalking by electronic means.
Cyberbullying constitutes a crime under Georgia's law prohibiting harassing communications. It's a misdemeanor to do the following by phone, email, text, messaging, or any other form of electronic communication:
It's also a misdemeanor to let someone use your electronic device to do any of the above. A person convicted of a misdemeanor faces up to a year in jail or a $1,000 fine.
(O.C.G.A. §§ 16-11-39.1; 17-10-3 (2021).)
Georgia penalizes acts of cyberstalking under its criminal stalking laws.
Crimes. A person can commit stalking by using a computer or any electronic device to repeatedly contact or surveil another in an attempt to "harass or intimidate" that person or their family. Harassing and intimidating behavior includes a pattern of conduct directed at a specific person which places that person in reasonable fear for their or their family's safety and causes them emotional distress. A person may be guilty of stalking even if he or she makes no overt threat of death or bodily injury toward the victim.
Penalties. Stalking also carries misdemeanor penalties of up to one year in jail or a $1,000 fine. But, for a subsequent stalking conviction, the defendant faces felony penalties of one to 10 years in prison. These felony penalties also apply if a defendant is subject to a restraining order and violates the order by stalking the victim protected under the order.
Additional conditions. For any stalking violation, a judge can also require the defendant to undergo a psychological evaluation and issue a permanent restraining order prohibiting contact with the victim.
(O.C.G.A. §§ 16-5-90, -91 (2021).)
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 if there's ambiguity.
Unreasonable reaction. The stalking law requires proof that the victim's fearful reaction was reasonable. If a victim had a hypersensitive reaction to the conduct involved, you 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.
These laws apply to acts done by both adults and minors, but the procedures for prosecuting such acts vary depending on the offender's age. Georgia law places teenagers ages 17 to 19 in adult court, where they face an adult conviction and adult consequences like incarceration in a jail or prison. Matters involving teenagers age 16 and younger are generally handled in juvenile court. In juvenile court, judges can often exercise greater discretion in sentencing (called disposition), including ordering treatment, curfews, monitoring, and community service. A juvenile who's found guilty will receive an adjudication of delinquency rather than an adult conviction. (O.C.G.A. § 15-11-2 (2021).)
Georgia's education code specifically addresses and prohibits acts of cyberbullying directed at students or school staff. Cyberbullying can result in disciplinary action by the school, and the local school board can reassign a student who repeatedly breaks these rules to another school. (O.G.C.A. §§ 20-2-751.4, 20-2-751.5 (2021).)
If you or anyone you know has experienced or been accused of harassment, stalking, or bullying, you may want to speak with a lawyer experienced in criminal defense or education law in your area.