While it is true that teenagers today face bullying in ways experienced by generations of young people before them, the relatively recent rise of the Internet and electronic modes of teen socializing have led to a new form of this old behavior: cyberbullying. This problem includes any bullying that takes place in an electronic format, for example through social media platforms like Facebook or over telephonic text messaging. And as you will read below, cyberbullying has its own unique dangers and consequences that stem from its electronic nature.
This article discusses several of Virginia’s criminal statutes, such as harassment and stalking, as they may apply to cyber bullying that occurs by and against teens. To learn more about criminal harassment and stalking generally, see Harassment and Cyber bullying as Crimes.
Cyberbullying between and against teens in Virginia is handled under school policies, and sometimes in criminal court.
Bullying itself is not the name of a crime, but rather described behavior that may lead to criminal charges. Bullies will face criminal charges based on their specific behavior.
For example, cyberbullying may be charged under Virginia’s "harassment by computer" law when the bully used a computer to send obscene communications, suggestions, or threats of any illegal act with the intent to harass, coerce, or intimidate a victim. (Va. Ann. Code § 18.2-152..7:1.)
Oral threats to kill or bodily injure a school employee may also bring criminal charges under the state’s threats of death or bodily injury law. This law also applies to a written threat to kill or injure a student, another person, or the person’s family member. (Va. Ann. Code § 18.2-60.)
And cyberbullying may be charged as criminal stalking when the behavior in question included two or more acts that would have placed a reasonable person in fear sexual assault, bodily injury, or death (or in reasonable fear that a family member would be sexually assaulted, hurt, or killed). (Va. Ann. Code § 18.2-60.3.)
Virginia law requires each local school board to have a policy that includes (among other things) a prohibition against bullying, and criteria for when a student may be removed from class, suspended, or expelled from school. Although policies include anti-bullying language, they are not specific to only bullying; rather they are meant to address many potential student behavior issues (for example, gun possession and gang membership). (Va. Ann. Code § 22.1-279.6.)
As mentioned above, cyber bullying has its own unique dangers and consequences that stem from its electronic format. These include both short and long term problems for both the victim and the bully.
In the short run, bullying that occurs online causes the victim to suffer before a potentially wider audience. This is because more people can view abusive messages and images posted online than would usually witness an in-person instance of abuse.
In the longer run, content posted online remains there forever (even if it is “deleted”), so abuse that might fade from memory if it happened on the school yard might pop up over and over again online.
For example, images may resurface for years to come, affecting the victim’s future social relationships and even professional opportunities. This attribute of cyber bullying can also come back to harm the bully, for example when a future employer conducts Internet searches to screen job applicants and finds out about the bully’s past cruelties.
Cyber bullying also has unique potential for anonymity, for example through use of fake social media or other user profiles. This may lead cyberbullies to be more cruel than if faced with an in-person victim. In comparison, a schoolyard bully is usually easier to identify—and punish—than his or her cyber counterpart.
Several defenses may apply to criminal charges associated with cyber bullying, including the following.
Your right to free speech is one of the basic and most celebrated among those protected under the United States Constitution. However, this right is nonetheless limited when the speech in question (which can include words or actions) is likely to cause a serious and immediate threat to others.
For example, the right to free speech does not protect someone who yells “Fire!” in a crowded theater. The threat that this speech poses is both serious and imminent because it is likely to cause an immediate and dangerous stampede as patrons try to reach the exits.
Cyberbullies may also face limits to speech that would likely cause an immediate threat to another person or that person’s 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 (speech protected by the 1sst Amendment) and seriously threatening speech is not always easy to draw. For this reason, it is worth exploring this defense.
As explained above, stalking requires that the bully’s behavior caused the victim to feel fear, and that this fear is reasonable under the circumstances. In other words, if the victim was hyper-sensitive to behavior that would not have bothered an average, reasonable person, the behavior in question is unlikely to legally qualify as stalking. Because of this reasonable fear requirement, a defendant may be acquitted of stalking charges if his actions were not serious enough to bother a reasonable person in the victim’s position.
Although a peace officer or private investigator may be annoying to the people they interact with, these professionals are protected from stalking convictions when they act within the legal scope of their employment duties.
Virginia punishes bullying behaviors under school policy, and sometimes in criminal court.
This offense is a class 1 misdemeanor, and incurs a fine of up to $2,500, up to one year in jail, or both. (Va. Ann. Code § 18.2-152..7:1.)
Orally threatening to kill or injure a school employee is a class 1 misdemeanor. And a written threat to kill or injure a student, another person, or the person’s family member is a class 6 felony. For punishment purposes, judges have the discretion to treat class 6 felonies as either a misdemeanor (a fine of up to $2,500, up to one year in jail, or both ) or a felony (at least one and up to five years in prison), depending on the severity of the crime. (Va. Ann. Code § 18.2-60.)
Stalking is usually a class 1 misdemeanor, but increases to a class 6 felony for crimes that occur in violation of a civil protective order (and in other similar specified circumstances).
As you have read, cyberbullies may face penalties at school and sometimes in criminal court.
In addition, a victim of cyberbullying may bring a civil law suit for the emotional, social, or financial harm caused by the offense. The size of the money damages will depend on the harm caused to the victim. For example, a cyberbully may be ordered by a civil court judge to pay for the cost of therapy for the emotional distress caused to the victim.
An attorney is the only person who can give you legal advice. If you have questions about how the law applies to your situation, or have been charged with a bullying related offense, talk to a local criminal (or civil) defense attorney.