Young people have always encountered bullying, but cyberbullying—bullying that occurs in an electronic format—has become more prevalent than ever. This phenomenon is more common due to the universal use of social media sites and texting as integral parts of social interactions among teens. What many don't realize is that cyberbullying can cross the line to criminal conduct such as cyber-harassment and stalking.
This article discusses New Jersey's laws concerning cyberbullying and cyber-harassment. These include state criminal statutes regarding harassment and other related crimes.
It can be. While New Jersey's criminal laws don't specifically use the term cyberbullying, a person who engages in cyberbullying can be charged under its cyber-harassment law. More serious instances of cyberbullying may fall under the criminal charge of stalking. Let's take a closer look at both of these offenses, as well as the penalties associated with each one.
New Jersey takes cyber-harassment seriously. If a minor commits the offense, the parents can be punished as well.
A person who uses online or electronic communications (including social media) to harass another commits cyber-harassment if that communication threatens:
Cyber-harassment also includes an offender knowingly sending materials intended to emotionally harm the victim or to place the victim in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm. Examples could include posting abusive messages on a social media platform or sending threatening text messages to a victim.
Cyber-harassment is a fourth-degree offense, which carries penalties of up to 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine. If the defendant is younger than 16, a judge can order the defendant and their parent or guardian to participate in a program that teaches the dangers of cyber-harassment, with the ultimate goal of reducing their tendency to participate in such behavior.
The crime increases to a third-degree offense if the cyberbully was 21 or older at the time of the offense and impersonated a minor for the purpose of cyber-harassing the minor. A guilty defendant faces three to five years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
More serious instances of cyberbullying can be charged as stalking. While not referred to as cyberstalking, the types of unlawful communications and conduct under the stalking law are broad enough to include such behavior.
New Jersey defines stalking as knowingly engaging in two or more acts directed against a victim that makes the victim reasonably fear for their own or another's safety or causes them to suffer other emotional distress. These repeated acts can include not only physically following someone but also repeatedly threatening a person by verbal or written threats or by any other means of communication, such as using an electronic device. The repeated conduct is what makes this crime more serious than a cyber-harassment situation.
Stalking is a crime of the fourth degree, resulting in potential penalties of up to 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine. However, this unlawful behavior increases to a third-degree crime when the offense occurs in violation of an existing court order prohibiting the behavior, the defendant was in prison or on parole at the time of the offense, or the crime is a second or subsequent stalking conviction. A third-degree offense carries three to five years in prison and a $15,000 fine.
As discussed above, cyberbullying may be criminally prosecuted under multiple state laws. Depending on the charge and circumstances of the offense, a defendant might be able to raise one or more defenses, including the following.
Free speech is a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution. Defendants can argue that their communications were protected speech. But this right only goes so far. Communications that are threats or cause fear or intimidation are not generally protected. However, the line between protected and illegal speech isn't always clear, meaning that it may be appropriate under certain circumstances to explore a free-speech defense.
As discussed above, certain acts of cyber-harassment and stalking require the defendant's actions to be ones that would cause reasonable fear in the victim. This means they would put a reasonable person in fear of certain negative actions occurring. In other words, if the victim was hypersensitive to actions that would not alarm an average reasonable person, the defendant may be acquitted of stalking charges.
Under New Jersey's Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, all school districts in the state must adopt policies prohibiting harassment, intimidation, or bullying on school property, whether it's through written, verbal, physical, or electronic means. They must also develop policies for reporting, investigating, and disciplining such behavior.
Cyberbullying includes any electronic communication that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by an actual or perceived characteristic that substantially interferes with the rights of another student or their education, causes physical or emotional harm to that student, and a reasonable person should know would have that effect on the person. These characteristics can refer to someone's race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, to name a few.
When acts of cyberbullying and cyber-harassment cross the line to criminal conduct, a person can face serious fines and incarceration. If you've been arrested for or charged with a related crime, contact a local criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. A qualified lawyer can give you sound legal advice and recommend the best course of action for the unique circumstances of your case.
(N.J. Stat. §§ 2C:12-10; 2C:33-4.1; 2C:43-3, -6; 18A:37-13.2, -14, -15 (2022).)