Bullies may be a fact of life during youth, but cyberbullying—bullying in electronic format—presents uniquely dangerous outcomes. Lawmakers throughout the country continue to try to combat this evolving social problem.
This article discusses Washington statutes that may apply to cyberbullying by and against teens. For more general information, see Teen Cyberbullying and Harassment .
Some believe that cyberbullies are less dangerous to their victims because they don’t use physical violence, and because victims can theoretically “unplug” from their phones or computers. But in today’s society, cyberbullies can cause serious harm.
For example, a cyberbully can post messages or images that not only reach a wider audience online, but also never really go away. Of course, the Internet also provides cyberbullies with the potential for relative anonymity; the bully may hide behind a fake email account or social media profile. This anonymity may cause bullies to be bolder and meaner than if faced with their victims in person—and may make it harder to catch and stop them.
However, victims aren’t the only one to suffer. While a schoolyard incident might eventually fade from mind, a bully’s cruelties may surface in the future, as when prospective employers screen applicants with a little Internet research.
Bullying is behavior that may be punished under school policy and sometimes criminal laws.
Telephone harassment. When a bully uses a telephone to intimidate or bother another person, the bully may be charged with telephone harassment. The bullying behavior may include, for example, unwanted lewd language or suggestions, or threats to harm the victim or a family member of the victim. (Wa. Rev. Code Ann. § 9.61.230.)
Cyberstalking. Cyberstalking applies to abusive electronic contact, and includes text messaging, but not classic use of a phone (the crime of telephone harassment covers the latter). A bully may be charged with cyberstalking when, for example, the bully uses text messaging, email, or a social media platform to contact the victim. (Wa. Rev. Code Ann. § 9.61.260.)
Telephone harassment and cyberstalking are usually gross misdemeanors, which carry a fine of up to $5,000, up to a year in jail, or both. (See Washington Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentences.) But these crimes are punished as class C felonies when the behavior:
Penalties for a class C felony include a fine of up to $10,000, up to five years in prison, or both. (Wa. Rev. Code Ann. § § 9.61.230, 9.61.260; for more, see Washington Felony Crimes by Class and Sentences.)
Malicious harassment is a criminal charge that encompasses classic hate-crime behavior. This charge applies when the cyberbully makes a threat to a specific group of people or a person perceived to be identified with that group, and the threat is motivated by race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or handicap. A conviction requires that the bully have the apparent ability to carry out the treat.
Malicious harassment is a class C felony. (Wa. Rev. Code Ann. § 9A.36.080.)
Stalking. Prosecutors may also charge cyberbullying under Washington’s stalking law when the bully:
Stalking is usually a gross misdemeanor, but increases to a class B felony under a number of specified circumstances. These include, for example, the bully having a previous stalking conviction. Penalties for a class B felony stalking conviction include a fine of up to $20,000, up to ten years in prison, or both. (Wa. Rev. Code Ann. § 9A.46.110.)
Each Washington school district is required to establish an anti-bullying policy for its schools. These policies are designed to combat the effects of bullying (and cyberbullying) on the learning environment, and to protect students on an individual basis.
District policies must contain procedures for reporting and handling instances of bullying, and must provide primary contact people to receive and follow up on such reports. And each school must make the district policy available to school employees, students, parents, and other community members involved in the school (like volunteers). (Wa. Rev. Code Ann. § 28A.300.285.)
Under the statewide school anti-bullying policy, a school employee, student, or volunteer who promptly reports an incident of harassment or bullying may be immune from civil or criminal liability. If the person promptly reports the behavior in compliance with the school’s reporting policy, then he or she has a defense against any criminal charges or civil lawsuit related to the reporting of the behavior. (Wa. Rev. Code Ann. § 28A.600.480.)
Depending on the circumstances, those who face criminal charges stemming from bullying accusations may be able to claim the following defenses or ones similar to them.
Some bullies may mistake their constitutionally protected right to free speech for a free pass to abuse others. The government can punish people for their speech (words and related actions) under appropriate circumstances. Examples are falsely yelling “fire!” in a crowded theatre and issuing what are sometimes referred to as terrorist threats.
But the line between protected and criminal speech isn’t always clear. In a given case, a defense attorney might have a legitimate argument that the alleged acts of cyberbullying really constituted legitimate speech that’s protected under the Constitution.
Depending on the circumstances, someone charged with a crime related to cyberbullying might have a defense in that the victim’s reaction was unreasonable. For instance, stalking requires that the defendant’s conduct reasonablyscare, intimidate, or bother the victim. So, if the victim was hypersensitive to behavior that wouldn’t have created the necessary reaction in a reasonable person in similar circumstances, the behavior doesn't qualify as criminal stalking.
In addition to school-based punishment and criminal charges, cyberbullies may also face consequences in civil court. (For more, see Can a Victim of Cyberbullying Sue for Future Damages?)
If you have questions about how the law applies to you or are facing discipline or criminal charges related to bullying, talk with a qualified attorney. Only a lawyer can fully explain the laws that apply to your situation and give you proper legal advice.