Cyberbullying Laws in Tennessee

It is a crime in Tennessee for any person to harass another person by any form of communication, including email, text message, or social networking posts. The crime may escalate to a felony if the victim is under 18. And, Tennessee law directs all school districts to develop and implement a policy prohibiting cyberbullying of students with discipline for violations spelled out.

This article discusses cyberbullying laws in Tennessee. For information about cyberbullying in general, see Teen Cyberbullying and Harassment.

Crime of Cyberbullying

Anyone who uses a smart phone, laptop, or other device to follow, harass, or threaten another person can be prosecuted under various Tennessee criminal laws.

Harassment

It is a misdemeanor in Tennessee for any person to transmit or send messages that “knowingly annoy or alarm” the recipient of the message. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-308.) A person engaging in such conduct is guilty of criminal harassment.

And, anyone who posts or transmits an image to another person is guilty of harassment, if:

  • the person posting or transmitting maliciously intends to be perceived by the victim as a threat, and
  • a reasonable person viewing the image would perceive it as a threat. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-308.)

So, sending an annoying or alarming text message, for example, is a form of harassment under Tennessee law

Stalking

By making repeated contact with another person without that person’s consent, including contact through electronic communications or via the internet, an individual in Tennessee may be engaging in criminal stalking. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-315.) Criminal stalking is a Class A misdemeanor in Tennessee.

The crime becomes a Class E felony if the victim is under age 18 and the stalker is five or more years older than the victim. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-315.)

How is Cyberbullying Punished in Tennessee?

Harassment and stalking are Class A misdemeanors. (Tenn. Code Ann. § § 39-17-308, 39-17-315.) A person convicted of harassment may face a jail sentence of not greater than eleven months and twenty-nine (29) days, a fine not to exceed $2,500, or both. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-111.)

Under Tennessee’s stalking law, if the victim was under 18 and the stalker was five or more years older than the victim, the stalker may be convicted of a Class E felony. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-315.) A person convicted of felony stalking may face a prison sentence of not less than one year and not more than six years, a fine not to exceed $3,000, or both. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-35-111.)

Schools

Tennessee requires all public school districts to adopt and enact anti-cyberbullying policies. (Tenn. Code Ann. § § 49-6-4503, 49-6-4504.) Cyberbullying is defined by Tennessee law as “bullying undertaken through the use of electronic devices.” It includes cell phones, computers, email, text messaging, and web sites. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-6-4502.)

The policies must:

  • define cyberbullying, harassment, intimidation, and bullying
  • prohibit cyberbullying, harassment, intimidation, and bullying of students
  • state the consequences to anyone who engages in prohibited conduct
  • set forth the reporting procedure to be used by anyone experiencing or witnessing prohibited conduct, including anonymous reporting
  • prohibit retaliation against anyone who reports prohibited conduct, and
  • describe the investigation that the district will conduct following reports.

(Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-6-4503.)

In addition, the Tennessee law requires district policies to include a “procedure for discouraging and reporting conduct aimed at defining a student in a sexual manner or conduct impugning the character of a student based on allegations of sexual promiscuity.” This provision is aimed at protecting students from damage to their reputations from rumors or allegations of sexual promiscuity.

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.

Immunity from lawsuits

A school employee who promptly reports an act of cyberbullying, harassment, intimidation, or bullying in compliance with the district policy cannot be sued for damages for failure to remedy the prohibited conduct. (Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-6-4505.)

Talk to a Lawyer

If you believe that you or a student you know has experienced, witnessed, or been accused of cyberbullying or any other form of bullying, you may want to talk to a lawyer experienced in criminal defense or education law in your area.

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