While bullying may have always been a special problem among the youth, cyberbullying—bullying that occurs in an electronic format—has become a serious problem among teens, which can cause equally harmful effects. This phenomenon has become increasingly more common with text messaging and social media sites becoming an integral part of the social interaction among teens and middle schoolers. The result of these electronic interactions has led to what many believe is the most dangerous type of bullying to date.
North Carolina, like other states, requires schools to adopt anti-bullying procedures. But what many don't realize is that bullying can cross the line to criminal behavior.
This article discusses North Carolina's cyberbullying and cyberstalking crimes. Cyberbullying offenses apply primarily to acts aimed at intimidating minors, while cyberstalking refers more generally to electronic communications directed at any individual to annoy, harass, or threaten them.
North Carolina takes any type of bullying and stalking very seriously. It's one of the few states that have criminal laws specific to cyberbullying and cyberstalking. A guilty offender faces incarceration time, as well as additional charges for crimes like trespass.
Schools' anti-bullying policies address cyberbullying, but such an offense can also be a crime when the behavior is serious enough. Cyberbullying is essentially bullying that occurs online. North Carolina has a cyberbullying law that criminalizes using a computer or computer network to engage in one of several specified prohibited behaviors with the intent of intimidating or tormenting a minor (or sometimes their parents).
Some of these prohibited behaviors include:
The law further prohibits a student from taking these same actions against a school employee.
Examples of cyberbullying include sending hateful messages over social media, creating a fake profile to elicit or send out personal information about a minor, or breaking into a minor's password-protected account.
(North Carolina's Supreme Court has determined the cyberbullying statute to be unconstitutional under certain circumstances.)
Cyberstalking involves an offender's use of email or electronic communications to threaten or harass someone. For instance, the law prohibits using electronic communications to threaten to physically harm someone or damage their property or to extort money from them. It's also unlawful to repeatedly send electronic communications or to send an electronic communication containing false statements in order to abuse, annoy, threaten, terrify, harass, or embarrass another.
Cyberbullying may be charged under North Carolina's stalking law when the bully harasses a targeted victim on more than one occasion and the bully knew (or should have known) the conduct would:
Harassing behavior includes written, printed, voice, or telephonic communications that torment, terrorize, or terrify the victim. Examples of communication methods are cellphones, voice messages, and electronic mail messages.
Like any crime, several defenses exist for cyberbullying; however, the most common is free speech.
Free speech is one of the most basic rights protected under the U.S. Constitution. Yet this right is not absolute; there are times and places when your speech (which includes words and actions) may be limited, specifically when it is likely to cause serious and immediate harm to others.
Cyberbullies can also face limits to speech that would likely cause 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 (speech protected by the First Amendment) and seriously threatening speech is not always easy to draw. As previously mentioned, the North Carolina Supreme Court on occasion has found parts of the cyberbullying statute to be unconstitutional. (See State v. Bishop, 368 N.C. 869 (2016).)
In addition to the potential consequences imposed under school policy, a cyberbully may face fines, imprisonment, or both, if convicted in criminal court for a crime stemming from the bully's behavior. Cyberstalking, although less severe, can still land an offender in jail.
Cyberbullying constitutes a class 1 misdemeanor if the defendant was 18 or older at the time of the offense, and a class 2 misdemeanor if the defendant was a minor. A class 1 misdemeanor carries a penalty of up to 120 days in jail and a fine, whereas a class 2 misdemeanor subjects the offender to up to 60 days in jail. Exact penalties vary according to the defendant's prior conviction record and the court's discretion based on North Carolina's unique structured sentencing system.
When the defendant is a minor, a court may, without entering a judgment of guilt, defer further proceedings and place the defendant on probation. Deferring entry of judgment provides the offender an opportunity to be free of a criminal conviction. If the minor completes certain requirements and conditions during their term of probation, the court will discharge the defendant and dismiss the case.
Cyberstalking is a class 2 misdemeanor, which can include up to 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Exact penalties vary based on the defendant's previous criminal record and the court's discretion. See above.
The law categorizes stalking as a class A1 misdemeanor, which carries up to 150 days in jail and a fine amount that the court deems appropriate. The amount of incarceration time depends on the circumstances of the offense and the defendant's criminal record.
Teenagers who are 18 or 19 are tried in adult court and receive an adult conviction, which can mean incarceration time. Minors age 17 and younger fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court (with some exceptions for certain felony charges). Juvenile court judges tend to have broad discretion in imposing punishments, such as ordering detention, community service, treatment, monitoring, and curfews. In juvenile court, the minor receives an adjudication of delinquency (not a conviction).
Victims of bullying may bring a case in civil court to recover money from the bully to pay for the harm caused by that bully's actions. For example, a judge or jury may award a victim money to pay for therapy costs incurred as a result of the bully's abuse. Similarly, a bully may have to pay for damage to property that resulted from their actions.
Bullying, whether handled at the school level or in court, can incur serious consequences. If you've been arrested for or charged with cyberbullying, cyberstalking, or a related offense, contact a local criminal defense attorney. A lawyer can help you chart your best course of legal action.
Similarly, you may be able to recover money damages if you have been a victim of cyberbullying or a similar offense. A lawyer can advise you about the potential civil causes of action that might apply to your case
(N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 14-196.3, 14-277.3A, 14-458.1, -.2; 15A-1340.21, -.23; 115C-407.16 (2021).)