Bullying is so much a negative part of teen social life that the school yard bully is a high school stereotype. But only recently has cyber bullying—bullying that occurs in an electronic format— become a problem among teens. This phenomena has arisen with the incorporation of Internet and cell phone communication as an integral part of teen social interaction, and, as discussed below, has lead to new (and often longer reaching) consequences for bullies and victims alike.
This article also discusses North Carolina’s cyber stalking and related criminal laws that apply when cyberbullying occurs between or against teens. To learn more about criminal harassment and stalking generally, see Harassment and Cyberbullying as Crimes.
Cyberbullying is addressed under school anti-bullying policy, and also in criminal court when the behavior is serious enough to have broken a law. Potential laws that apply to cyber bullying and the state’s mandated school anti-bullying policies are discussed next.
Cyber bullying may be charged under North Carolina’s stalking law when the bully engaged two or more acts against a targeted victim that the bully knew (or should have known) would
North Carolina also has a specific cyberbullying law that criminalizes using a computer to engage in one of several specified prohibited behaviors. These behaviors include creating a fake user profile or posing as a minor and communicating with or posting images or messages about a minor in order to intimidate or torment that minor or the minor’s parent. (N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §14-458.1.)
North Carolina schools have been required to operate under state-mandated anti-bullying policies since 2009. Each local school administrative unit (such as a school district or board) is required to adopt a policy that includes (among other things) definitions of prohibited and expected student behaviors; procedures for reporting and investigating potential bullying by or against students; and the school staff responsible for each procedure. (N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §115C-407.16.)
Several attributes of electronic communication and social life make cyber bullying uniquely harmful to both bullies and victims.
Because the Internet has a permanent “memory,” abusive postings or communications never really go away (even if they are deleted). So victims may experience repeated grief from a bully’s abuse, and bullies may also be harmed by the Internet’s lasting record of such cyber abuse.
Because of this, images, messages, and other posts may pop up years after an in-person bullying episode would have faded from memory. This gives the cyberbully a wider audience (and the victim suffers for a longer time and before more people), but may also come back to bite the bully when a potential employer conducts a Internet screening search years down the line when the former bully is applying for a job.
In the shorter term, the Internet can also make identifying a bully more difficult. Where the schoolyard bully is usually relatively easy to identify, cyberbullies 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.
Like any crime, several defenses, such as the following, may apply at trial. If you have been charged with a cyber bullying-related offense, your attorney will review the defenses that apply to your unique situation.
Free speech is one of the basic and most celebrated rights protected under the United States 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.
Most people are familiar with the classic limitation on free speech that prohibits someone from yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. The threat that this speech poses is both serious and imminent because it is likely to cause an immediate and dangerous stampede as patrons try to reach theatre exits.
Cyberbullies may 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. For this reason, it is worth exploring this defense.
Stalking requires that the victim was actually scared or intimidated by the bully’s behavior, and that such fear was reasonable under the circumstances. Because of the reasonable fear requirement, a defendant may be acquitted of stalking charges if his actions were not serious enough to bother a reasonable person in the victim’s position. (N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §14-277.3A.)
In addition to the potential consequences imposed under school policy, a cyber bully may face fines, imprisonment, or both if convicted in criminal court for a crime stemming from the bully’s behavior.
Stalking is a class A1 misdemeanor, and may include fines, jail time, and community service; exact penalties vary according to the defendant’s prior conviction record and court discretion, according to North Carolina’s unique sentencing guidelines. (Misdemeanor sentencing is explained in North Carolina Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentences.)
This crime is a class 1 misdemeanor if the defendant was 18 or older at the time of the offense, and a class 2 misdemeanor if younger than 18. As explained above, applicable penalties depend on where the defendant’s situation fits into North Carolina sentencing guidelines.
In addition to the consequences under school policy and criminal court, bullies may also face a judgment imposed by a civil court jury or judge.
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 his or her actions.
To get legal advice or learn about how the law applies to your unique circumstances, talk to a qualified local criminal (or civil) defense attorney.