Young people have always encountered bullying, but cyberbullying—bullying that occurs in an electronic format—has become more prevalent than ever before. This phenomenon is more common due to the universal use of social media sites, such as Instagram and Snapchat, and messaging as integral parts of the social interaction among teens. What many don't realize is that cyberbullying can lead to criminal charges.
This article discusses Mississippi's criminal laws that prohibit acts of cyberbullying and cyberstalking, as well as state-mandated anti-bullying policies for schools.
A person who engages in cyberbullying can face charges for cyberstalking, sending obscene or harassing electronic communications, stalking, and aggravated stalking. All of these crimes can include conduct involving electronic communications—email, calls, texts, messages, and posts—sent through a computer, cellular, or other electronic devices. In certain situations, the penalties for a conviction carry the potential of significant incarceration time.
Cyberstalking occurs when an offender uses any form of electronic communication (such as email, messaging, or texting) to:
Mississippi classifies cyberstalking as a felony, which carries up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine. However, when the offense occurs in violation of a restraining order or condition of probation, parole, or pretrial release, the crime incurs a fine of up to $10,000 and up to five years' imprisonment. This enhanced penalty also applies if the offender has a similar previous conviction.
Prosecutors can also charge cyberbullying as stalking when the defendant uses an electronic communication to make a credible threat or repeatedly contact another and knows (or should know) that this conduct would cause a reasonable person to fear for their own safety or the safety of another or property damage.
Stalking constitutes a misdemeanor and incurs penalties of up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. When the crime involves violating a restraining order and other similar circumstances, the monetary portion of the penalty increases to $1,500.
Stalking becomes aggravated stalking, a more serious offense, when one of the following factors also applies. The defendant:
Aggravated stalking is a felony, punishable by up to five or six years in prison and a $3,000 or $4,000 fine, depending on the circumstances.
A person also commits a crime by doing any of the following through an electronic communication:
A guilty offender faces up to six months in jail and a $500 fine for a first offense. Multiple offenses can result in a defendant spending up to two years in prison and paying a $2,000 fine.
As discussed above, cyberbullying and cyberstalking may be criminally prosecuted under several state laws. Depending on the charge, one or more defenses may apply to each case, including the following.
Free speech is a fundamental yet limited right protected by the U.S. Constitution. The government can punish speech (words and related actions) when it is likely to be immediately dangerous to others. Examples are falsely yelling "fire!" in a crowded theatre and issuing what are sometimes referred to as terrorist threats. The line between protected and illegal speech isn't always clear, meaning that it may be appropriate under certain circumstances to explore a free-speech defense.
As explained above, stalking requires that the bully's behavior cause a victim to reasonably fear for their or their family's safety. In other words, if the victim was hypersensitive 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 their actions were not serious enough to bother a reasonable person in the victim's position.
Both minors and adults can be charged with cyberbullying or stalking, but they will be prosecuted in different courts based on age. Teenagers age 18 and 19 will face charges in adult criminal court, whereas most juveniles ages 10 to 17 fall under the jurisdiction of the state's youth court division. Mississippi law allows a minor who is 13 or older to be transferred to adult court under certain circumstances.
Juvenile court judges generally have more discretion than adult court judges in sentencing, as the juvenile justice system focuses more on rehabilitation rather than punishment. Within the juvenile system, sentencing options may include counseling, community service or work program, educational program, or detention in a juvenile facility. In juvenile court, the minor receives an adjudication of delinquency rather than a criminal conviction.
Mississippi law requires all public and private schools to adopt an anti-bullying policy for harassing behaviors, including cyberbullying, that occur on school property. Bullying includes any communication, physical act, or conduct toward a student that's based on an actual or perceived trait or characteristic of the student, and which creates an objectively hostile school environment or places the student in actual and reasonable fear of harm or property damage.
Additionally, Mississippi law makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine, to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any student in a way that interferes with the student's right to attend class. This includes acting in a threatening or coercive way through electronic communications.
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 lawsuit 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 civil court judge may order a cyberbully to pay the cost of therapy for the emotional distress caused to the victim.
Cyberbullying and cyberstalking can incur serious fines and substantial incarceration time for a guilty defendant. If you've been arrested for or charged with a related crime, contact a local criminal defense attorney right away. A lawyer can give you sound legal advice and recommend the best course of action for the unique circumstances of your case.
If you've been a victim of cyberbullying, you may be able to recover money damages. A lawyer can advise you about the potential civil causes of action that might apply to your case.
(Miss. Code §§ 37-11-20, -67, -69; 43-21-105, -151; 97-3-107; 97-29-45; 97-45-15 (2021).)