Cyberbullying Laws in Texas

Cyberbullying occurs when people, primarily children, use social media, the Internet, or other forms of communication to intimidate, harass, threaten, or belittle others. Though many people don’t realize it, cyberbullying can have serious legal consequences.

In Texas, acts of bullying and cyberbullying are covered under several different laws. While some of these laws apply only to students and lead only to school-related punishment, others apply to everyone within the state and can result in criminal penalties.

For a lengthier discussion of the laws and legal concepts surrounding cyberbullying and bullying, read Teen Cyberbullying and Harassment.

What is Bullying?

Bullying within the meaning of Texas’s Educational Code occurs when a student engages in any verbal or written statement, electronic communication, or physical act that results in:

  • physical harm to a student
  • physical harm to a student's property, or
  • a student experiencing a reasonable fear of harm.

Bullying also includes any ongoing, severe, and persistent statements or physical acts that create an abusive educational environment for a student.

If the conduct interferes with a student's education, substantially disrupts school, or exploits an imbalance of power between the victim and the perpetrator, it's considered bullying. Bullying can take place on school property, in a vehicle operated by the school district, or during any school-sponsored or related activity.

Students who engage in bullying can face school disciplinary actions. (Texas Educational Code § 37.0832.)

What is Cyberbullying?

In Texas, "cyberbullying" is defined as a person using any electronic communication device to engage in bullying or intimidation. So, this form of bullying falls under the broader bullying law above. Relevant communications include, for example, statements made through social media and text messages. (Texas Educational Code § 37.218.)

Cyberbullying and Bullying as Crimes

In addition to school-related consequences, students who bully or cyberbully others can face criminal charges under appropriate circumstances.

Harassment. The crime of harassment occurs when someone does any of the following to another:

  • intentionally communicates an obscene proposal
  • threatens
  • conveys a false report, or
  • makes a call or sends a message designed to harass, annoy, alarm, embarrass, or torment.

Harassment is either a Class A or B misdemeanor depending on the circumstances. (Texas Penal Code § 42.07.)

Online Impersonation. Someone commits the crime of online impersonation by acting with intent to harm, defraud, or intimidate and:

  • creating a page on a website site, or
  • sending messages in the guise of someone else without that person's permission.

Online impersonation is either a felony or misdemeanor depending on the circumstances. (Texas Penal Code § 33.07.)

Disruptive Activities. The crime of disruptive activities occurs when someone uses force or threats of force to:

  • obstruct people from moving through a school
  • prevent or attempt to prevent others from participating in school assemblies, or
  • obstruct or restrain a person from entering or leaving a school.

This crime is a Class B misdemeanor. (Texas Educational Code § 37.123.)

Cyberbullying and Bullying in Civil Law

Someone who bullies or cyberbullies may also face the possibility of civil liability. Unlike criminal actions, civil lawsuits don’t involve the possibility of incarceration or related punishment; private citizens rather than state prosecutors file them.

Cyberbullying or bullying could result, for example, in a suit for defamation. Defamation involves the publication of false statements that result in someone’s harm.

Losing a civil lawsuit could result in a court order to pay damages. The order could include punitive damages designed not to compensate a victim for actual harm suffered, but to penalize the wrongdoer.

Defenses

There are defenses to all crimes, and any that are available will differ from case to case. Where the charges involve bullying or cyberbullying, though, the circumstances may allow for claims of the following:

  • Freedom of speech. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution greatly limits the government’s ability to restrict speech. But the Amendment doesn’t protect all speech, such as certain kinds of threats. (See Online Threats Versus the First Amendment.) Whether a student’s use of social media to shame another constitutes cyberbullying or protected speech will depend on the circumstances.
  • Unreasonable perception. A person’s claim that a statement is threatening or harassing doesn’t make it so. In general, a criminal conviction requires that a reasonable person who saw or heard the statement in question would have interpreted it similarly.

Punishment for Bullying and Cyberbullying

Acts of bullying or cyberbullying can result in significant punishment depending on the circumstances. In addition to suspension or expulsion from school, or other administrative punishments, a student convicted of a crime could face juvenile or adult criminal penalties. For example, the punishment for disruptive activities, a Class B misdemeanor, is up to 180 days in jail and up to $2,000 in fines.

For more information on criminal penalties in Texas, see Texas Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentences and Texas Felony Crimes by Class and Sentences.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you believe you have committed a crime or law enforcement has approached you about your behavior, you need to speak to an experienced Texas criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. You should never make any decisions about your case until you've received the advice and guidance of a knowledgeable lawyer. Acting without sound legal advice could seriously hurt your case.

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