Cyberbullying Laws in South Carolina

Cyberbullying occurs when people, often teens and pre-teens, use cellphones or social media to send harassing, threatening, or intimidating messages to others. Though many don't realize it, cyberbullying in South Carolina and throughout the country can lead to significant legal consequences.

For a more detailed discussion of cyberbullying in general, read Teen Cyberbullying and Harassment.

Bullying in South Carolina Schools

South Carolina law defines bullying as any gesture, act, or electronic communication that can reasonably be perceived as:

  • causing physical or emotional harm to a student, damaging a student's property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of personal harm or harm to property, or
  • insulting or demeaning a student or a group of students, and causing substantial interference with, or disruption of, orderly school operations.

(Code of Laws of South Carolina § 59-63-120.)

South Carolina law doesn't specifically identify cyberbullying. Instead, the state's bullying law applies to it. For example, a child who physically threatens or intimidates another in a South Carolina school commits an act of bullying. It's also bullying if the child uses social media, a cellphone, or another form of electronic communication to send threatening or intimidating messages to the victim.

Students who bully others can face school disciplinary consequences up to, and including, expulsion, while school employees who bully can face penalties up to, and including, termination. (See "Bullying and Cyberbullying Punishment," below.)

Bullying and Cyberbullying as Crimes

In some situations, students who engage in bullying or cyberbullying in South Carolina can face criminal charges.

Harassment in the First or Second Degree. Harassment in the second degree occurs when:

  • someone engages in a pattern of intentional, substantial, and unreasonable intrusion into another's private life that serves no legitimate purpose, and
  • the pattern would cause a reasonable victim to suffer emotional or mental stress.

The harassing behavior can include physical acts as well as verbal or electronic communications.

The following conduct elevates the crime to harassment in the first degree:

  • following the victim
  • making physical contact with the victim
  • vandalism against the victim's property, or
  • maintaining surveillance of the victim's work, school, or residence. (Code of Laws of South Carolina § 16-3-1720 and 16-3-1700.)

Stalking. Stalking is any pattern of words or conduct that serves no legitimate purpose and that would cause a reasonable person to fear, either for him or herself or for a family member, the following:

  • death
  • assault
  • bodily injury
  • kidnapping
  • criminal sexual contact, or
  • property damage.

Stalking behavior includes verbal, written, and electronic communications. (Code of Laws of South Carolina § 16-3-1730.)

Bullying and Cyberbullying Punishment

Schools

South Carolina requires each school district to have a policy that addresses bullying and the potential punishments for those who engage in it. For example, the Charleston County School District has adopted a policy that allows for penalties that go up to expulsion for a student who engages in bullying, and termination for an employee who does the same. (Charleston County School District Policy JICFAA.)

Courts

When an act of bullying or cyberbullying rises to the level of a criminal act, more significant penalties are possible. For example, a person convicted of harassment in the first degree, a misdemeanor offense, faces up to $1,000 in fines, imprisonment of up to three years, or both. Someone convicted of stalking, a felony offense, faces up to $5,000 in fines, up to five years in prison, or both. (Code of Laws of South Carolina § § 16-3-1720, 16-3-1730.)

For a more detailed look at criminal penalties in South Carolina, see South Carolina Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentences and South Carolina Felony Crimes by Class and Sentences.

Possible Defenses

Someone charged with a crime related to bullying or cyberbullying might have a viable legal defense (or more than one). The availability of any particular defense will differ from case to case, but common ones include:

  • Freedom of speech. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the state from restricting freedom of speech, though not in every situation. For example, freedom of speech doesn't cover certain kinds of threats. (See Criminal Threats.) On the other hand, a student who uses social media to express opinions about another student's racist conduct might be protected under the First Amendment.
  • Reasonableness. For statements or actions to constitute harassment or stalking, they must be reasonably upsetting or threatening. It's not enough for the alleged victim to feel emotional or mental stress or fear; the conduct in question must be such that it would produce this kind of reaction in an average, reasonable person.

Bullying and Cyberbullying Under Civil Law

Apart from the potential criminal and educational punishments involved with bullying, someone in South Carolina who bullies or cyberbullies another may also face a civil lawsuit. For example, a victim of bullying could file a defamation lawsuit against the harasser. (For more, see Can a Victim of Cyberbullying Sue for Future Damages?)

Speak to an Attorney

Bullying and cyberbullying can involve significant consequences. Anyone faced with the possibility of criminal charges should speak to a South Carolina criminal defense attorney who can fully explain the relevant law as soon as possible. You should rely on a lawyer who has represented clients in local South Carolina courts for advice and guidance.

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