Bullying is not a new part of teenage social life, but its electronic cousin, “cyberbullying,” is a relatively recent and regrettable result of the growth of the Internet and other electronic means of communication. The more socializing takes place electronically, the more opportunities there are for this kind of bullying.
This article discusses Oklahoma’s laws concerning cyberbullyingby against teens. These include state criminal statues regarding stalking and threatening electronic communications. To learn more about criminal harassment and stalking generally, see Harassment and Cyberbullying as Crimes.
Cyberbullying is handled according to the circumstances of the offense. State schools can punish such abuse through the School Safety and Bullying Prevention Act, while some serious offenses can also land in criminal court. This section describes two Oklahoma criminal statues (laws) that may apply to instances of cyberbullying that wind up in criminal court, and then discusses the Bullying Prevention Act.
Cyberbullying may be charged under Oklahoma’s threatening electronic communications law when, among other behaviors, the defendant communicates via electronic means in an obscene or lewd way; in an anonymous manner with the intent to annoy or abuse the victim; or in a threatening or harassing way intended to put the victim in fear of bodily injury or death. As you can see, this crime includes a wide variety of abusive behaviors; it can involve (but is not limited to) communication via text messaging or over the Internet (such as through email, or on Facebook or other social media platforms). (21 Ok. Stat. Ann. §1172.)
Cyberbullies may also be charged with stalking when the bullying included repeated harassment that would cause a reasonable person to feel frightened or threatened, and the behavior actually caused such fright in the victim.
Notice that as compared to threatening electronic communications, stalking requires more things for a defendant (the bully) to be convicted. First, the defendant must have engaged in repeated behavior, which means two or more incidents of abuse towards the victim or a member of the victim’s immediate family. Second, the behavior must be something that would have caused a reasonable person in the victim’s position to feel fear, and the victim must have actually felt fear. This means that behavior that would not bother a reasonable person but agitated an especially sensitive “victim” may not rise to the level of a crime. For example, someone bothered by loud cheering is not being bullied if that person attends a football game and stands next to a happily shouting fan. Conversely, behavior that would bother a reasonable person but leaves a specific victim unfazed would also probably not meet this two-part definition. (21 Ok. Stat. Ann. §1173.)
Oklahoma public schools operate under the School Safety and Bullying Prevention Act, which requires each district board of education to adopt an anti-bullying policy. Policies must (among other things) define bullying (including cyberbullying), and contain procedures for reporting, investigating, documenting, and responding to alleged instances of bullying (including notifying a victim’s parents and reporting criminal behavior to law enforcement). The policies must also include annual anti-bullying training for school administrators and staff, and provide an educational program for students aimed at preventing bullying. (70 Ok. Stat. Ann. §24-100.4.)
When compared with in-person bullying, cyberbullying can be uniquely harmful to both victims and bullies themselves. This is true in the short and long terms.
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 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.
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 bully is applying for a job. Employers are increasingly conducting Internet searches when screening potential employees, and coming across nasty or indecent messages from a candidate—even from years ago—may put the former bully in a questionable light in the employer’s eyes.
Several defenses may apply to cyberbullying charges, 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 bully convicted of a cyber bullying-related criminal offense may face fines, imprisonment, or both, as described below.
Threatening electronic communications is a misdemeanor, which incurs a fine of up to $500, up to one year in jail, or both. Second and subsequent offenses are felonies, which may incur more than a year in prison.
Stalking is a misdemeanor, and incurs a fine of up to $1,000, up to one year in jail, or both. And penalties increase for offenses that occur in violation of a restraining or other civil protective order, when the defendant was on parole at the time of the violation, and in other similar specified circumstances.
As discussed above, cyberbullying may be handled through school policy, in criminal court, or both. And 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 cyber bully. 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.