Bullying may be an timeless phenomenon in teenage life, but its electronic cousin called “cyberbullying” is relatively new. Cyberbullying has grown up within the myriad Internet, social media, and other electronic platforms that are at the heart of today’s virtual interactions; and because of the unique attributes of these media, cyberbullying’s effects on everyone involved can be longer lasting and more harmful than traditional instances of face-to-face bullying.
This article discusses New Jersey’s laws concerning cyberbullying—bullying that occurs in an electronic format— by and against teens. These include state criminal statues regarding harassment and other related crimes. To learn more about criminal harassment and stalking generally, see Harassment and Cyberbullying as Crimes.
Depending on the circumstances of the offense, cyberbullying may be handled in school, criminal court, or both. This section describes two New Jersey criminal statues (laws) that may apply to instances of cyberbullying that land in criminal court, and then discusses state-mandated antibullying policies in schools.
Cyberbullying can be charged under New Jersey’s cyber harassment law when the offense includes behavior that takes place in an electronic format that is intended to annoy or alarm the victim. This crime includes making threats to inflict injury or harm on the victim or the victim’s property, and knowingly sending materials intended to emotionally harm the victim or place the victim in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm. Examples might include posting abusive messages on a social media platform, or sending threatening text messages to a victim. (N.J. Stat. Ann. §2C:33-4.1.)
More serious instances of cyberbullying can be charged as stalking, and include crimes where the defendant engaged in two or more acts directed against the victim that made the victim reasonably fear for the victim’s or a third person’s safety. The repeated conduct is what makes this crime more serious than a cyber harassment situation. (N.J. Stat. Ann. §2C:12-10.)
In 2011, the New Jersey legislature adopted the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, based on the 2009 recommendations of the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in Schools. Among other things, the Act defines bullying and related behaviors, requires training for school faculty and staff in bullying and suicide prevention; and defines procedures for reporting, investigating, documenting, and handling instances of bullying on public school campuses. (N.J. Stat. Ann. §18A:37-13.2.)
Cyberbullying is uniquely harmful because of the electronic medium in which it occurs.
For example, the Internet provides a wider audience for abusive or humiliating posts, especially on social media websites, where often anyone with Internet access can see messages and other information.
Similarly, data posted online never really goes away (even if it is “deleted”), an attribute of electronic media that can come back to haunt victims and bullies for years to come. It may even affect potential future employment opportunities, as many employers perform Internet searches to screen job applicants.
And the schoolyard bully is usually relatively easy to identify, which differs from cyber bullies who may hide behind anonymous or fake user accounts and profiles. Indeed, behind a shield of anonymity, a bully might be bolder—and crueler—than he or she would dare be if faced with the victim in person.
Several defenses may apply to charges of cyberbullying, including the following.
The 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution protects your right to free speech (especially where opinion is expressed). However, this right is not absolute; the state may limit free speech when it is considered a serious and imminent threat.
You have likely heard of the classic example of someone yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. This speech is not allowed because, in context, it poses a serious and imminent threat of causing pandemonium and a dangerous stampede out of the theatre.
Likewise, bullies may not engage in speech that causes an immediate threat to another person or that person’s property. Bullying speech (words or actions) may be legally limited for example, if a bully makes a threat to harm a victim and, given the circumstances, the victim reasonably believes that the bully could make good on the threat.
But the line between a legitimate expression of opinion and seriously threatening speech is not always easy to draw. For this reason, it is worth exploring this defense, especially if your words or actions were ambiguous enough not to put a reasonable person in fear of harm (see below).
As discussed above, cyber harassment and stalking both 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 hyper-sensitive to actions that would not alarm an average reasonable person, the defendant may be acquitted of stalking charges.
A person convicted of a cyber bullying-related criminal offense may face fines, imprisonment, or both; as described below.
Cyber harassment is crime of the fourth degree. Penalties are at the discretion of the judge within a range of possible fines and prison terms; and this crime may include a fine of up to $10,000, up to 18 months in prison, or both.
The crime increases to a crime of the third degree if the cyberbully was 21 years old or older at the time of the offense and impersonated a minor for the purpose of the cyber harassment. Penalties may include a fine of up to $15,000, between three and five years in prison, or both.
Stalking is a crime of the fourth degree; but increases to a crime of the third degree when the offense occurs in violation of a restraining or similar court order, when the defendant was in prison or on parole at the time of the offense, or when the crime is a second or subsequent stalking conviction.
As you have read, cyberbullying may be handled in criminal court or at the school level, but victims may also bring civil cases to recover money damages for the emotional, social, or financial harm caused by a cyber bully. A civil court judge may award money damages to be paid to the victim by a bully, for example to offset the cost of therapy for the emotional trauma that the bully caused the victim, or to pay for property damage caused by the crime.
If you have been a victim of cyberbullying, your attorney will discuss specific courses of action that may apply to your case.
Bullying in any form is damaging to all parties involved, and bullies often face fines and even time in prison. Therefore, if you have been charged with a bullying-related crime, you should speak to a qualified local criminal defense lawyer. Only an attorney can give you legal advice and help you chart the best course of legal action for your case.