Young people have always encountered bullying, but cyberbullying—bullying that occurs in 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 kids. What many don't realize is that cyberbullying can lead to criminal charges.
This article discusses Tennessee's criminal laws that prohibit acts of cyberharassment and cyberstalking, as well as state-mandated anti-bullying policies for schools. For information about cyberbullying in general, see Teen Cyberbullying and Harassment.
Tennessee criminalizes acts of cyberbullying under its harassment and stalking laws. It's a crime for any person to harass another person by any form of electronic communication, including email, text message, or social networking posts. Anyone who uses a smartphone, laptop, or another electronic device to follow, harass, or threaten another person can be prosecuted for stalking.
Cyberbullying can be charged under Tennessee's harassment law when a defendant communicates via electronic means and intentionally does any of the following:
Sending an annoying or alarming text message, for example, is a form of harassment under Tennessee law.
Cyberstalking falls under Tennessee's stalking law when the crime involves an electronic form of communication, such as the internet. Stalking includes a defendant's willful course of conduct involving repeated or continuing harassment of another person that would cause a reasonable person to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested, and that actually causes the victim to react that way.
The prosecutor can bump up the charge to aggravated stalking under the following circumstances:
Cyberharassment committed by a minor (younger than 18) carries a maximum penalty of 30 hours of community service. All other acts of cyberharassment and cyberstalking constitute Class A misdemeanors in Tennessee. A guilty defendant faces up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and a $2,500 fine. Aggravated stalking is a Class E felony, which carries one to six years in prison and a $3,000 fine.
Both minors and adults can be charged with cyberbullying or cyberstalking, but they will be prosecuted in different courts based on age. Teenagers younger than 18 fall under the jurisdiction of the state's juvenile justice system. Adults are tried in criminal court.
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.
Some Tennessee juvenile courts have created "Teen Courts," in which the youth's peers are the "judges." Charges of cyberharassment are eligible for teen court. A minor who successfully completes teen court will have their case dismissed.
Tennessee's Education Code requires all public school districts to adopt and enact anti-bullying policies, including cyberbullying and harassment. The statute defines cyberbullying as bullying undertaken through electronic devices, which includes cell phones, computers, email, text messaging, and websites. The law also requires districts to provide annual training on the policy to teachers and administrators, as well as to notify students and parents of the policy. A school employee who promptly reports an act of cyberbullying or harassment in compliance with the district policy cannot be sued for damages for failure to remedy the prohibited conduct.
Students who engage in cyberbullying can face school disciplinary actions. These unlawful acts can result in significant punishment depending on the circumstances. In addition to suspension, expulsion from school, and other administrative punishments, a student convicted of a crime could face juvenile or adult criminal penalties (as described above). School-imposed sanctions do not stop the victim from also seeking remedies in both civil and criminal court.
Cyberbullying and cyberstalking can incur serious fines and substantial incarceration time for a guilty defendant. If you've been arrested for or charged with cyberharassment or a related crime, contact a local criminal defense attorney. A qualified lawyer can give you sound legal advice and recommend the best course of action for the unique circumstances of your case.
(Tenn. Code §§ 37-1-702; 39-17-308, -315; 40-35-111; 49-6-4502, -4503, 4505 (2022).)