Cyberbullying and Cyberstalking Laws in Pennsylvania

Cyberbullying that rises to the level of harassment or stalking can mean criminal charges and punishment.

By , Attorney · University of Houston Law Center
Updated January 23, 2023

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 Instagram and Snapchat, and messaging as integral parts of social interactions among teens. What many don't realize is that cyberbullying can also lead to criminal charges.

This article discusses Pennsylvania's criminal laws that prohibit acts of cyberbullying and cyberstalking, as well as state-mandated anti-bullying policies for schools.

Is Cyberbullying a Crime in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania laws address cyberbullying in criminal statutes, as well as in school harassment and bullying laws. A person who engages in cyberbullying can face charges for harassment, cyber harassment of a child, or stalking. All of these crimes include conduct involving electronic communications—emails, calls, text messages, and social media messages and posts—sent through computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices.

Harassment and Doxxing Crimes in Pennsylvania

Cyberbullying may be charged under Pennsylvania's harassment law when a defendant electronically communicates with a victim in a threatening or obscene way with the intent to alarm or annoy the victim.

Doxxing—the act of releasing someone's personal information online for a malicious purpose, such as intent to harm—can also fall under the crime of harassment.

Stalking Crimes in Pennsylvania

If acts of cyber harassment show an intent to put the victim in reasonable fear of bodily harm or to cause the victim substantial emotional distress, the prosecutor can charge the offense as stalking, which carries harsher penalties than harassment.

Cyber Harassment Crimes Against Children in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has a separate crime for cyber harassment of a child younger than 18. A person commits this crime by repeatedly using electronic means to harass, annoy, or alarm a child by making:

  • seriously disparaging statements or opinions about the child's physical characteristics, sexuality, sexual activity, or mental or physical health or condition, or
  • threats to inflict harm.

A seriously disparaging statement or opinion is one that's intended to, and reasonably likely to, cause substantial emotional distress to the child, which produces some physical manifestation of the distress.

State-Mandated School Anti-Bullying Policies in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania law requires all schools to adopt a policy relating to bullying, including cyberbullying, and incorporate it into their school's code of conduct. Each policy must be reviewed every three years and include disciplinary consequences for bullying, as well as identify the school staff members who are responsible for receiving reports of alleged bullying. Schools are required to review the policy with students at least once each school year and make the policy publically available (including posting it in a prominent location in each school building).

What Is the Punishment for Cyberharassment or Cyberstalking in Pennsylvania?

In addition to the potential consequences imposed under school policy, a cyberbully may face fines, imprisonment, or both if convicted in criminal court for a crime stemming from the bully's behavior.

Penalties for Cyberharassment in Pennsylvania

Cyberbullying charged as harassment constitutes a misdemeanor in the third degree when an offender repeatedly communicates with a victim in a threatening or obscene manner, anonymously, or at extremely inconvenient hours. A third-degree misdemeanor carries up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

When the bully, with no legitimate purpose, repeats conduct meant to annoy or alarm a victim, they face a summary offense. Such an offense can result in a fine of up to $300 and, in some cases, even up to 90 days in jail. Increased penalties apply to offenders who commit harassment in violation of a restraining or other civil protective order involving the same victim (or someone in the same family or household).

Penalties for Cyber Harassment of a Child in Pennsylvania

The law categorizes cyber harassment of a child as a third-degree misdemeanor, which carries penalties of up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine. Doxxing, another form of online harassment, can also fall under this category if the victim is a child.

Penalties for Cyberstalking in Pennsylvania

A person convicted of a first-time stalking offense faces a misdemeanor of the first degree and penalties of up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. For a second or subsequent stalking conviction, or a first stalking conviction that occurs in violation of a protective order or after a conviction for certain other crimes against the same victim (for example, assault or rape), the crime increases to a third-degree felony. Penalties for such an offense include up to seven years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

Possible Defense to Cyberbullying Charges in Pennsylvania

As discussed above, cyberbullying and cyberstalking may be criminally prosecuted under several state laws in Pennsylvania (depending on the circumstances of the offense). Depending on the charge, one or more defenses may apply to each case, including the following.

Free Speech

A defendant might argue that their actions are constitutionally protected free speech. 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 theater 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.

Legal Activities

As described above, actions that annoy or alarm another person are sometimes prosecuted under Pennsylvania's criminal harassment law. However, a defendant may have a defense to prosecution if the actions have a legitimate legal purpose. This might be true of a defendant, like a bill collector, who was acting within the scope of employment (although acting as an employee alone is not a defense to taking part in illegal behaviors).

Victim's Fear Isn't Reasonable

Stalking requires that the bully'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 stalking charges if their actions were not serious enough to bother a reasonable person in the victim's position.

Will Teen Cyberbullies Go to Juvenile or Adult Court?

Both minors and adults can be charged with cyberbullying or stalking, but they will be prosecuted in different courts depending on age. Teenagers who are 18 or 19 will face charges in adult criminal court, whereas most juveniles, age 10 to 17, will fall under the jurisdiction of the state's juvenile court division.

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 (called adjudication) options can include a diversion agreement, home detention, and community service, among others. In juvenile court, the minor receives an adjudication of delinquency rather than a criminal conviction.

If a juvenile is charged with cyber harassment of a child, the judge must first consider referring the offender to a diversion program. A diversion program works to keep the case out of the justice system, as long as the juvenile follows the program terms. Successful completion of such a program results in the expungement of the juvenile's record. These juvenile court penalties are in addition to any potential disciplinary action the child's school may take if the child's actions violated the school's anti-bullying policies while on school grounds.

Talk to a Lawyer

Cyberbullying and cyberstalking can incur serious fines and substantial incarceration time for a guilty defendant. If you have been arrested for or charged with a related crime, contact a local criminal defense attorney right away. A lawyer can give you sound legal advice and recommend the best course of action for the unique circumstances of your case.

(18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 1101, 1103 to 1105, 2709, 2709.1; 24 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 13-1303.1-A; 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 6322, 6323 (2022).)

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