Bullying has likely always been a menace in teenage social life, but with the rise of 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.
This article discusses Ohio’s laws concerning cyberbullying by and against teens. These include state criminal statues regarding stalking and electronic harassement. To learn more about criminal harassment and stalking generally, see Harassment and Cyberbullying as Crimes.
In 2014, and after a series of cyberbullying-related teen suicides, a significant public outcry in Ohio arose to modify existing state laws (or create new ones) that better respond to the unique harm caused by cyberbullying. As of this writing, new legislation has not been enacted.
Until the state legislature responds accordingly, instances of cyberbullying continue to be handled under school policies, existing criminal statutes (laws), or both. These are discussed next.
Cyberbullying may be charged under Ohio’s telecommunications harassment law when, among other behaviors, the defendant anonymously uses a telecommunication device (such as a phone, sending text messaging or making calls), with the purpose of harassing or threatening the victim. It also includes relaying sexually suggestive messages after the victim has requested the caller to stop such communications. (Oh. Rev. Code Ann. §2917.21.)
Cyberbullies may also face charges under Ohio’s "menacing by stalking" law when the bully engaged in two or more acts that caused the victim to believe that the bully was going to cause physical or mental harm to the victim. This law also includes bullies who post messages online that urge others to abuse the victim in this way. (Oh. Rev. Code Ann. §2903.211.)
Ohio law requires all school boards to adopt model antibullying policies that prohibit bullying on school property or at school sponsored events, and to assist school districts in creating similar policies. These policies must define bullying as repeated acts (including electronic communications) between or among students that cause mental or physical harm.
Policies must also contain, among other things, procedures for reporting, investigating, documenting and responding to alleged instances of bullying. (Oh. Rev. Code Ann. §3313.666.)
For both bullies and victims, cyberbullying may have more far-reaching consequences than the harm caused by traditional school yard bullying.
Most directly, for example, the Internet may provide a wider audience for abusive interactions, such as those that occur on social media platforms. And the schoolyard bully is usually relatively easy to identify, which differs from cyberbullies 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 facing the victim in person.
In the longer term, nothing on the Internet ever truly goes away (even if it’s “deleted”). This may cause long term problems, for example, years after a cyberbullying incident when the victim is applying for a job. Employers are increasingly using Internet searches in screening potential employees, and coming across nasty or indecent messages concerning a candidate—even from years ago—may, however unfairly, put the former victim in a questionable light in the employer’s eyes.
If you have been charged with a bullying-related crime, your attorney will review potential defenses to raise at trial. One might be a free speech defense.
You may already know that your right to free speech is protected under the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution, and that this right is not absolute (the state may limit free speech when it is considered a serious and imminent threat).
Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre is the classic example of this limitation, 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.
A bully convicted of a cyber bullying-related criminal offense may face fines, imprisonment, or both, as described below.
Telecommunications harassment is usually punished as a first degree misdemeanor, which incurs a fine of up to $1,000, up to six months in jail, or both. However, a second or subsequent violation is a fifth degree felony, which incurs up to $2,500 in fines, at least six months (and up to one year) in jail, or both fines and jail time. And other penalties (and laws) may apply if the offense resulted in actual personal, economic, or property damage.
Menacing by stalking is usually also a first degree misdemeanor. However, the crime increases to a fourth degree felony when any of several specified factors existed at the time of the crime, including when the victim was someone younger than 18 years old, or when the defendant had previously been convicted of stalking. Penalties for a fourth degree felony conviction may include a fine of up to $5,000, at least six months in jail (and up to 18 months in prison), or both.
Bullies may face sanctions under school policies, such as suspension or expulsion; and may even find themselves charged with a crime. In addition to these consequences, cyberbullies may also face a civil law suit.
Civil lawsuits allow victims of bullying to potentially recover monetary damages for the emotional, social, or financial harm caused by a cyberbully. For example a judge may order bullies to pay money to offset the cost of therapy for the emotional trauma caused to 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 causes of action that may apply to your case.
Bullying – electronic or in person—is harmful to everyone involved. It also may incur harsh fines and long jail or prison terms, so speak to a qualified criminal (or civil) defense attorney if you have been charged with a bullying-related offense. Only an attorney can give you legal advice and help you chart the best course of legal action for your case.