Cyberbullying by and against teenagers is a form of bullying that occurs in an electronic format, often on social media platforms and through text messaging.
This article discusses Pennsylvania’s school anti-bullying policy, and the criminal harassment and stalking laws that may also apply to cyberbullying offenses. To learn more about criminal harassment and stalking generally, see Harassment and Cyberbullying as Crimes.
This section describes state criminal laws that may apply to bullying incidents that wind up in criminal court, and the state anti-bullying policy that applies to all Pennsylvania school. Punishment under either or both of these avenues are possible consequences of cyberbullying.
When a cyberbullying offense lands in criminal court, it may be charged as harassment if (among several specified behaviors), the defendant communicated with the victim in a threatening way with the intent to alarm or annoy the victim. (18 Pa. Con. Stat. Ann. § 2709.)
Cyberbullying may also be charged as stalking when the underlying behavior includes repeated acts that show an intent by the bully to put the victim in fear of bodily injury or serious emotional distress. (18 Pa. Con. Stat. Ann. § 2709.1.)
As of 2009, all state schools are required to adopt a policy relating to bullying(or amend any existing policies), and incorporate it into the school’s code of conduct. Each policy must include disciplinary consequences for bullying, and identify the school staff members who are responsible for receiving reports of alleged bullying.
Each school must 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). (24 Pa. Con. Stat. Ann. § 13-1303.1-A.)
Because it occurs in an electronic format, cyberbullying can be uniquely damaging to everyone involved. For example, the Internet opens victims up for abuse before a wider audience. This might occur on social media platforms where many users can see messages or images posted to a victim’s profile. Indeed, depending on privacy settings, the harassing communications may be available for viewing to anyone with Internet access.
Similarly, data posted online never really goes away (even if it is “deleted”), an attribute of electronic media that can come back to haunt victims and bullies for years to come. It may even affect potential future employment opportunities, as more employers are now using Internet searches to screen job applicants.
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.
The following are examples of defenses that may apply to a cyberbullying-based criminal charge.
Your right to free speech is protected by the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution. However, this right is not absolute; the state may limit free speech when it is considered a serious and imminent threat.
So, like someone yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater (which, in context, poses a serious and imminent threat of causing pandemonium and a dangerous stampede out of the theater), bullies may not engage in speech that causes an immediate threat to another person or their 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.
As described above, actions that annoy or alarm another person are sometimes be 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).
A bully convicted of a criminal offense may face fines, imprisonment, or both, as described below.
Harassment is punished according to the underlying behavior of the offense. There are several specified behaviors listed in Pennsylvania’s harassment statute, but it is only possible to engage several of them electronically. One example is repeated conduct meant to annoy or alarm the victim that the bully engages in with no legitimate purpose. This is a summary offense, which may incur a fine, several months in jail, or both.
A more serious example of harassment includes repeatedly communicating with a victim in a threatening manner, anonymously, or at extremely inconvenient hours. These behaviors are third degree misdemeanors, which incur a fine of up to $2,500, up to one year in jail, or both.
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).
Stalking is a first degree misdemeanor, which incurs a fine of up to $10,000, at least five years in prison, or both. And when the offense is 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 (for example, assault or rape), the crime increases to a third degree felony. Penalties include a fine of up to $15,000, at least seven years in prison, or both.
As mentioned above, cyberbullies may be prosecuted criminally, face consequences proscribed by school policy, or both. But that is not all. Victims of cyberbullying may also bring civil cases to recover money from the bully to compensate the victim for the emotional, social, or financial harm caused by cyberbullying. For example, a civil court judge may award money damages to offset the cost of therapy for the emotional trauma that the bully caused, 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, whether online or in person, is a serious crime. If you have face bullying-related charges, you need to speak with a qualified local criminal or civil defense attorney. An attorney is the only person who can give you legal advice about how the law applies to your unique situation, and help you chart the best course of legal action for your case.