Cyberbullying in Louisiana

Bullying is one of the most harmful behaviors regularly occurring among teens. Add an electronic format into the mix and you have cyberbullying, which is possibly the most serious form of this behavior to date.

This article discusses Louisana’s laws concerning cyberbullying by and against teens. These include state criminal statues regarding stalking and other related crimes. To learn more about criminal harassment and stalking generally, see Harassment and Cyberbullying as Crimes.

Cyberbullying Laws in Louisiana

Cuberbullying is handled in schools and sometimes even in criminal court. This section describes state criminal laws that may apply to these cases, and the state-mandated anti-bullying policies required at all public Louisiana state elementary and secondary schools.

General criminal statutes that apply to cyberbullying

Cyberbullying can be charged under the state cyberbullying law when a bully (the defendant) uses an electronic device (such as a cell phone or a computer) to send a written, spoken, or visual communication to someone younger than 18 years old with the intent to abuse, scare, or intimidate that person. (14 La. Stat. Ann. § 40.7.)

More serious instances of cyberbullying can be charged as stalking if the defendant’s behavior included two or more harassing actions that would have made a reasonable person feel alarmed or emotionally distressed. And more serious penalties apply to offenses that cause the victim to fear bodily injury or death, or when the victim was younger than 18 years old. (Penalties are described further, below.) (14 La. Stat. Ann. § 40.2.)

And finally, cyberbullying may also be prosecuted under Louisiana’s cyberstalking law. This occurs when the offensive behavior occurred in an electronic format to threaten bodily harm upon the victim (or a victim’s family member), to extort money from the victim, repeatedly communicate for the purposes of harassing the victim, and other similar specified actions. (14 La. Stat. Ann. § 40.3.)

Legally-mandated school policies

Louisiana law requires all public schools to have an anti-bullying policy that includes staff and student education and training on various bullying-related topics. For example, faculty and staff (including bus drivers) must learn how to recognize behavior that constitutes bullying, the effect that bullying can have on all parties (including bystanders and the bullies themselves), and the disciplinary and criminal consequences of bullying among students.

Students are required to attend yearly age- and grade-appropriate Internet and cell phone safety education in the classroom. Content includes the safe and responsible use of social networking websites, chat rooms, email, instant messaging, and other similar forms of communication. It also covers the risks of posting and transmitting personal information; information about copyright laws; and how to recognize and report sexual (and other) predators, bullying, and other illegal activities.

Policies must also include intervention, reporting, investigation, disciplinary action, and other similar procedures. (28 La. Admin. Code § 1303.)

The Far Reaches of Cyberbullying

As mentioned above, cyberbullying is harassment that occurs through electronic media. And while victims are clearly hurt by this abusive behavior, the electronic format makes cyberbullying potentially even more serious than bullying that takes place in person. Here are several reasons why.

The Internet provides a wider audience for abusive or humiliating posts, especially on social media websites, where often anyone with Internet access can see messages and other information.

Similarly, data posted online never really goes away (even if it is “deleted”), an attribute of electronic media that can come back to haunt victims and bullies for years to come. It may even affect potential future employment opportunities, as more employers are now using Internet searches to screen job applicants.

And the schoolyard bully is usually relatively easy to identify, which differs from cyber bullies who may hide behind anonymous or fake user accounts and profiles. Indeed, behind a shield of anonymity, a bully might be bolder—and crueler—than he or she would dare be if faced with the victim in person.

Defenses to a Criminal Charge

There are several defenses that might apply to a bullying-based criminal case. These include, but are by no means limited to the following.

Free speech

The 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution protects your right to free speech (especially where opinion is expressed). However, this right is not absolute; the state may limit free speech when it is considered a serious and imminent threat.

So, like someone yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre (which, in context, poses a serious and imminent threat of causing pandemonium and a dangerous stampede out of the theatre), bullies may not engage in speech that causes an immediate threat to another person or their 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 and seriously threatening speech is not always easy to draw. For this reason, it is worth exploring this defense, especially if your words or actions were ambiguous enough not to put a reasonable person in fear of harm (see below).

Not really threatening

As discussed above, stalking requires the defendant’s actions to be ones that would put a reasonable person in fear of harm or death. This means that if the victim was hyper-sensitive to actions that would not alarm an average reasonable person, the defendant may be acquitted of stalking charges.

Your attorney will help you to explore these and other potential defenses based on the unique facts of your case.

How is Bullying/Cyberbullying Punished?

A bully convicted of a criminal offense may face fines, imprisonment, or both; as described below.

Cyberbullying

When the defendant is 17 or older, penalties for a cyberbullying conviction may include a fine of up to $500, up to six months in jail, or both. The crime is handled in juvenile court when the bully was younger than 17 at the time of the offense. Juvenile court judges usually have wider discretion as to available penalties.

Stalking

Stalking usually incurs a fine of at least $500 (and up to $1,000), at least 30 days (and up to one year) in jail, or both. However, as mentioned above, increased penalties apply to offenses that, among other things, caused the victim to fear bodily injury or death, or when the victim was younger than 18 years old.

Offenses that involve fear of bodily injury or death incur a fine of up to $1,000, at least one year (and up to five years) in prison, or both.

Crimes against minors (those younger than 18) incur a fine of up to $2,000, up to three years in prison, or both.

Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying incurs a fine of up to $2,000, up to one year in jail, or both. And increased penalties apply to second and subsequent convictions.

Civil Lawsuits

As you can see, the consequences of cyberbullying depend heavily on the circumstances of the offense. Sometimes an incident may be settled under school policy, but more serious cases often land in criminal court. Similarly, a victim may sometimes bring a civil action against a bully for the emotional, social, or financial harm caused by cyberbullying. In civil court, a judge may award money damages to be paid to the victim, for example to offset the cost of therapy for the emotional trauma that the bully caused the victim, or to pay for property damage caused by the crime.

If you have been a victim of cyberbullying, your attorney will discuss specific causes of action that may apply to your case.

Talk to a Lawyer

Bullying in any form is damaging to all parties involved, and bullies often face fines and even time in prison. Therefore, if you have been charged with a bullying-related crime, you should speak to a qualified local criminal defense lawyer. Only an attorney can give you legal advice and help you chart the best course of legal action for your case.

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