Cyberbullying in Maryland

Bullying by and against teens is a common social problem, but the Internet and widespread use of electronic forms of communication (such as text messaging) have created an even more harmful form of this problem: cyber-bullying (bullying that occurs in an electronic format).

This article discusses Maryland’s laws that can apply to instances of bullying and cyberbullying. These include several criminal statutes (like stalking, for example), but to learn more about criminal harassment and stalking in general, see Harassment and Cyberbullying as Crimes.

Bullying Laws in Maryland

Bullying and cyberbullying are criminalized through Maryland’s general criminal harassment and stalking statutes, and also through state-mandated anti-bullying policies in schools, described next.

General criminal statutes that apply to bullying and cyberbullying

Depending on the circumstances of the offense, bullying may be prosecuted under any of the following state criminal statutes.

Harassment describes behavior directed at a specific person that has no legal purpose, is intended to harass or alarm that person, and that continues after a reasonable request to stop. (Md. Ann. Code §3-803.)

Stalking occurs when a defendant engages in conduct that the defendant knows (or should know) will place the victim in reasonable fear of assault, injury, death, or other similar specified types of harm; or of any of these actions occurring to a third person (such as a family member of the victim’s). (Md. Ann. Code §3-803.)

This crime differs from harassment because of the type of harm at stake. Whereas harassment alarms or annoys the victim, stalking puts the victim in fear of serious injury or even death. So you can imagine that different forms of bullying would more easily fit into each of these categories. Repeated name calling, for example, might be prosecuted as harassment; while actual threats to harm a victim would more likely be categorized as stalking.

Misuse of electronic mail is a bit of a hybrid law. It includes any electronic conduct directed at a specific person that has no legal purpose, is intended to harass or alarm that person, and that continues after a reasonable request to stop. Notice how this is basically the same as the harassment definition, except that the conduct in question must occur electronically.

However, this law is broader than the harassment law because it also includes using the Internet or a cellular phone to purposefully inflict serious emotional distress on a minor, to place that minor in a reasonable fear of serious injury or death. (Md. Ann. Code §3-805.)

Effective October, 2013, this law was amended to more specifically address teen cyberbullying than the existing harassment law was doing up until that point. And compared to the penalties for harassment, this crime can incur a longer jail term, as you will notice in the section titled “How is Bullying/Cyberbullying Punished?” (below).

State-mandated school antibullying policies

Since 2011, all nonpublic schools (schools that receive some, but not all of their funding from the state) have been required to adopt anti-bullying policies. These policies are meant to prevent and address any intentional written, verbal, or physical act (including electronic communication) that harms a person or their property, puts a person in fear of these things, or substantially interferes with the educational environment.

Each policy must include a procedure for reporting and investigating instances of bullying, consequences of such incidents, procedures for protecting victims, and information for support services available to bullies, victims, and bystanders. (Md. Ann. Code § 7-424.3.)

And updated as recently as February 2014, the Maryland state board of education has issued a school safety policy for all public schools. It requires that all students, without exception for race, religion, gender, and other similar specified categories, have educational environments that are safe, supportive of academic achievement, and free from any form of harassment (which includes bullying). (Md. Code of Regs. § 13A.01.04.03.)

The Far Reaches of Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is the electronic cousin of bullying, and can cause even more serious damage because the unique attributes of electronically posted content. For example, when messages or images are posted online, they are often available to anyone with Internet access. And even if they are limited to “friends” (as is sometimes the case on Facebook), it is likely that the victim’s real life social group will be connected to the victim in this way, and thus have access to hateful cyber-postings.

Furthermore, data posted online never really goes away (even if it is “deleted”). So while a school-yard incident in front of the same group might eventually fade from memory, a victim of cyberbullying may have to regularly relive the harm and embarrassment of the original post. Indeed, images especially may resurface for years to come, affecting the victim’s future social relationships and even professional opportunities (as potential employers are increasingly using Internet searches as part of pre-employment screening).

And while a schoolyard bully is usually easy to identify, the Internet offers cyber bullies relative anonymity (for example, through a fake social media user profile). Behind this kind of 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

If you have been charged with a crime related to a bullying incident, you should explore these and other defenses that may apply to your case. However, each set of circumstances differs, and only a qualified local criminal defense attorney will be able to help you determine which defenses best fit the unique facts of your case.

Free speech

Free speech is protected by the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution. And while this right is not absolute, some speech (this includes literal talking as well as actions and other conduct) may be offensive but nonetheless be protected.

The state may legally place limits on free speech when it poses a serious and imminent threat. The classic example of this limitation involves someone yelling “fire!” in a crowded theatre. In context, this speech causes a serious and imminent threat of causing pandemonium and a dangerous stampede out of the theatre, and this speech is therefore subject to criminal charge.

When it comes to bullying, you are not allowed to utter threats or engage in other abusive behaviors that pose an imminent threat to someone else. For example, threats to use a weapon are limited speech when the victim knows the bully actually has such a weapon and is nearby enough to make good on the threat.

Conversely, nonviolent or other nonthreatening activities (for example, those intended to express the defendant’s political views or to provide lawful information to others) are often constitutionally protected. Examples include taking part in a lawful protest or assembly, even if the views expressed are unpopular or offensive to others.

So you can see that the line between a legitimate expression of opinion and seriously threatening speech is not always clear or easy to draw. For this reason, it is worth exploring a free speech defense, especially if your words or actions were ambiguous enough not to put a reasonable person in fear of harm (discussed next).

Not really threatening

Stalking requires that the defendant’s actions be ones that would put a reasonable person in fear or to feel threatened. This means that if the victim was hyper-sensitive to actions that would not alarm an average reasonable person in the victim’s position, the defendant may be acquitted of stalking charges. Similarly, if a reasonable person would be alarmed by the bully’s behavior, but the victim was actually unperturbed, the bully will probably not be convicted of bullying.

Legal activities

Some activities that might seem harassing, or that would put a person in fear of harm or death are nonetheless legal because of the context in which they occur. Police officers, for example, are allowed to use reasonable force to take a potential criminal into custody. Such actions might include chasing or using a taser. Of course, when undertaken by a civilian, these actions would put the person being persued in fear of harm or injury, and the pursuer could even be prosecuted under the state stalking statute (described above). But in context, the police officer is acting within the context of his or her job, and these actions would not result in a stalking conviction.

How is Bullying/Cyberbullying Punished?

In addition to the consequences incurred under school policy, someone who commits an act of bullying may also face criminal penalties. Depending on the specific conduct involved, bullying and cyberbullying may be prosecuted and punished under the Maryland state criminal statutes described above (with applicable penalties discussed next).

Harassment

Harassment is a misdemeanor, and incurs a fine of up to $500, up to 90 days in jail, or both. Penalties increase for second or subsequent offenses, to a fine of up to $1,000, up to 180 days in jail, or both.

Stalking

Stalking is a misdemeanor, but nonetheless incurs serious penalties. These include a fine of up to $5,000, imprisonment for up to five years, or both.

Misuse of electronic mail

This offense is a misdemeanor, and incurs a fine of up to $500, up to one year in jail, or both.

Civil Lawsuits

The crimes discussed above are prosecuted in criminal court. In addition the the penalties incurred for a criminal conviction, and any consequences stemming from school policy, bullies may also face civil law suits brought by their victims. These suits seek monetary damages to compensate the victim for the emotional, social, or financial harm caused by the offense. For example, the judge may award money damages to pay for the cost of therapy for the emotional distress caused by the bully.

Talk to a Lawyer

Bullying hurts everyone involved, and may incur serious fines and jail time for the aggressor. If you have been charged with crime discussed above, or something related, seek the advice of a qualified local criminal defense attorney. Only an attorney can give you legal advice and recommend the best course of legal action for the unique circumstances of your case.

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