Young people have always encountered bullying, but cyberbullying—bullying that occurs in an electronic format—has become more prevalent than ever before. This phenomenon is more common due to the universal use of social media sites, such as Facebook and Snapchat, and messaging as integral parts of the social interaction among teens. What many don't realize is that cyberbullying can lead to criminal charges.
This article discusses Oklahoma's criminal laws that prohibit acts of cyberbullying and cyberstalking, as well as state-mandated anti-bullying policies for schools.
A person who engages in cyberbullying can face charges for obscene, threatening, or harassing electronic communications or stalking. These crimes can occur online and through electronic communications, such as email, texting, and social media applications. In certain situations, the penalties for conviction carry the potential of incarceration time.
Cyberbullying can be charged under Oklahoma's threatening electronic communications law when a defendant communicates online or electronically and willfully does any of the following:
This crime includes a wide variety of abusive behaviors and can involve (but is not limited to) communications done via a computer, cellphone, or wireless device.
Sending an obscene, threatening, or harassing electronic communication constitutes a misdemeanor, which incurs penalties of up to one year in jail and a $500 fine. Offenders who commit second and subsequent offenses of this provision face a felony conviction and up to two years in prison and a $1,000 fine.
The crime of stalking occurs when an offender willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows or harasses a person to the point that would cause a reasonable person to feel frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested, and the behavior actually causes such fright in the victim.
Notice that as compared to threatening electronic communications, stalking requires a prosecutor to prove additional elements for a defendant 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.
Stalking is a misdemeanor and carries up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Penalties increase for offenses that occur in violation of a restraining or other civil protective order, when the defendant has similar prior convictions or was on parole at the time of the violation, and in other similar specified circumstances. In such cases, a defendant could face a five- or 10-year felony.
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, meaning that it may be appropriate under certain circumstances to explore a free-speech defense.
As explained above, stalking requires that the cyberbully's behavior cause a victim to reasonably fear for their safety. In other words, if the victim was hypersensitive to behavior that would not have bothered an average, reasonable person, the behavior in question is unlikely to legally qualify as stalking. Because of this reasonable fear requirement, a defendant may be acquitted of these charges if their actions were not serious enough to bother a reasonable person in the victim's position.
Both minors and adults can be charged with cyberbullying or stalking, but they will be prosecuted in different courts based on age. Teenagers ages 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. Oklahoma law allows a minor who is 13 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 or work program, educational program, or detention in a juvenile facility. In juvenile court, the minor receives an adjudication of delinquency rather than a criminal conviction.
Under Oklahoma's School Safety and Bullying Prevention Act, each school district's board of education must adopt policies and procedures to prevent and address bullying, including cyberbullying. The rules need to define bullying 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).
As discussed above, cyberbullying can be handled through school policy, in criminal court, or both. And in addition to these consequences, cyberbullies can also face a civil lawsuit.
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 can 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.
Cyberbullying and cyberstalking can incur serious fines and substantial incarceration time for a guilty defendant. If you've 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.
Similarly, you may be able to recover money damages if you've been a victim of these types of offenses. A lawyer can advise you about the potential civil causes of action that might apply to your case.
(Okla. Stat. tit. 10A, §§ 2-1-103, 2-5-205; tit. 21, §§ 9, 10, 1172, 1173; tit. 70, § 24-100 (2021).)