Bullying has always been a menace in teenage social life, but with the internet and other electronic modes of socializing, cyberbullying—bullying that takes place in an electronic format—has developed into a potentially even more dangerous teenage social ill. What many don't realize is that cyberbullying can cross the line to criminal conduct.
This article discusses Ohio's criminal statutes that prohibit and penalize cyberbullying as illegal acts of stalking and electronic harassment.
A person who engages in cyberbullying or cyberstalking in Ohio can face charges for telecommunications harassment and menacing by stalking. Both crimes apply broadly to electronic communications, texts, and images sent or posted via cell phones, computers, social media, or the internet. In certain situations, the penalties for conviction carry the potential of incarceration time.
Although referred to as the crime of "telecommunications harassment," this law sweeps in several forms of cyberbullying conducted electronically—whether it's communicated by phone, cell phone, computer, or other electronic devices that use the internet.
The law makes it a crime to knowingly send any telecommunication or post a text, audio statement, or image on the internet with the purpose of abusing, threatening, or harassing any person. The communication can be directed at the recipient or, in some cases, their family. For example, it's unlawful to knowingly make a false statement concerning the death or physical or reputational injury of the recipient or someone in their family or household.
Other unlawful acts include:
A first offense constitutes a first-degree misdemeanor, which carries penalties of up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. Second and subsequent offenses are fifth-degree felonies, which subject a guilty defendant to 6 to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine. Other penalties may apply if the offense resulted in actual personal, economic, or property damage.
Cyberbullies can also face a charge of menacing by stalking. This crime occurs when the defendant knowingly and repeatedly (two or more incidents close in time) engages in conduct that causes another person to believe the offender will cause physical harm or mental distress to them or their family or a household member. A defendant can violate this law by posting messages or images online or electronically or even by urging someone else to do so.
Generally, menacing by stalking constitutes a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. However, the crime increases to a fourth-degree felony when any of several specified factors existed at the time of the crime. These factors include:
Penalties for a fourth-degree felony conviction include 6 to 18 months of incarceration time and a $5,000 fine.
As discussed above, cyberbullying and cyberstalking may be criminally prosecuted under several state laws. Depending on the charge, one or more defenses may apply to each case, including the following.
Free speech is a fundamental yet limited right protected by the U.S. Constitution. The government can punish speech (words and related actions) when it is likely to be immediately dangerous to others. Examples are falsely yelling "fire!" in a crowded theatre and issuing what are sometimes referred to as terrorist threats. The line between protected and illegal speech isn't always clear, though, meaning that it may be appropriate under certain circumstances to explore a free-speech defense.
Both telecommunications harassment and menacing by stalking require a level of intent in order for a defendant to be guilty of the offense. Telecommunications harassment states the offender must knowingly send an electronic message with the purpose to abuse, threaten, or harass the victim. Likewise, menacing by stalking calls for the offender to act knowingly. If the defense can prove the defendant didn't intend or knowingly cause harm or distress, this strategy puts holes in the prosecution's case.
Both minors and adults can be charged with cyberbullying or cyberstalking, but they will be prosecuted in different courts based on age. Teenagers age 18 and 19 will face charges in adult criminal court, whereas most juveniles ages 17 and younger fall under the jurisdiction of the state's juvenile justice system. (Ohio law allows a minor who is 14 or older to be transferred to adult court under certain circumstances.)
Juvenile court judges generally have more discretion than adult court judges in sentencing, as the juvenile justice system focuses more on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Within the juvenile system, sentencing options may include counseling, community service, treatment, monitoring, curfews, educational programs, or detention in a juvenile facility. In juvenile court, the minor receives an adjudication of delinquency rather than a criminal conviction.
Ohio law requires all school boards to adopt model policies that prohibit harassment, intimidation, or bullying on school property or at school-sponsored events, and to assist school districts in creating similar policies. These policies must define these prohibited behaviors as repeated acts (including electronic communications) between or among students that cause mental or physical harm and is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive that it creates an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment for the student victim.
Policies must also contain, among other things, procedures for reporting, investigating, documenting, and responding to alleged instances of bullying.
As you have read, cyberbullies may face penalties at school and sometimes in criminal court. In addition, a victim of cyberbullying may bring a civil lawsuit for the emotional, social, or financial harm caused by the offense. The size of the money damages will depend on the harm caused to the victim. For example, a civil court judge may order a cyberbully to pay the cost of therapy for the emotional distress caused to the victim.
Cyberbullying and cyberstalking can incur serious fines and substantial incarceration time for a guilty defendant in Ohio. If you have been arrested for or charged with a related crime, contact a local criminal defense attorney right away. A qualified lawyer can give you sound legal advice and recommend the best course of action for the unique circumstances of your case.
(Ohio Rev. Code §§ 2152.10, -.12, -.19; 2903.211; 2917.21; 2929.14, -.18, -.24, -.28; 3313.666 (2021).)