Cyberbullying in Mississippi

While bullying has probably always been a problem among teenagers, the widespread use of the Internet, social media sites, texting, and other electronic forms of communication by teens has led to cyberbullying (bullying that occurs in an electronic format), which is likely the most damaging form of bullying to date.

Read on to learn about Mississippi’s laws on cyberbullying by and against teens. These include state stalking and cyberstalking laws, but to learn more about criminal harassment and stalking generally, see Harassment and Cyberbullying as Crimes.

Bullying Laws in Mississippi

Mississippi legislators have addressed bullying (and its electronic cousin, cyberbullying, described more below) in their general criminal statutes, and also in their school harassment and bullying law.

General criminal statutes that apply to bullying and cyberbullying

Several state statutes apply to cases of bullying, discussed in this section.

Acts against students It is illegal in Mississippi to intimidate, threaten, or coerce any student in a way that interferes with the student’s right to attend classes. This includes illegal force (such as physically blocking someone from entering a classroom), or acting in a threatening or coercive way (including giving, sending, or distributing threatening materials—electronically or not). This law applies when bullying actually interferes with the student’s right to attend classes, but does not cover instances when it puts the student in fear but does not interfere with class attendance. (The later is covered by stalking and similar laws, described next). (Ms. Code Ann. § 37-11-20.)

Stalking and aggravated stalking Cyberbullying can be charged as stalking when the defendant purposefully engages in continuous behavior (two or more acts) directed at a specific person (including making a credible threat); and knows (or should know) that the conduct would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety, the safety of another person, or to fear property damage.

More serious, and classified as “aggravated stalking,” is when the defendant engages in stalking that (at least once) included the display of a deadly weapon with the intent to put the victim in fear of bodily injury or death (to the victim or another person); or when the defendant has previously been convicted of stalking in the last seven years; or when the defendant was a registered sex offender at the time of the offense. (Ms. Code Ann. § 97-3-107.)

Cyberstalking This crime involves using any form of electronic communication (such as e-mail or texting) to threaten to harm the victim (or the victim’s family or property), or to extort money or other valuables from the victim. This offense also includes repeated electronic communications that threaten, scare, or otherwise harass the victim; and other similar specified circumstances. (Ms. Code Ann. § 97-45-15.)

Legally-mandated school policies

Since 2010, all public and private schools have been required to adopt an anti-bullying policy for harassing behaviors that occur on school property (including on school buses and at any school sponsored events).

Each school’s policy should cover both electronic and nonelectronic “bullying or harassing behavior.” This includes any communication, physical act, or conduct toward a student that is 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.

To be “objectively hostile,” the harassing behavior must substantially interfere with the student’s educational performance or with the student’s opportunities or benefits. For example, behavior that makes a student withdraw from a school-sponsored club or other activity, or to stay home from a field trip, would be interfering with that student’s educational opportunities and benefits.

“Actual and reasonable fear” means that the student actually views the behavior as harassing, and that the behavior is severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would agree. For example, if a father feels his son is being bullied by a classmate, but the son himself is actually unfazed, the behavior would probably not be classified as bullying. Similarly, it would not be considered a bullying situation if a student is abnormally sensitive to behavior that a reasonable person would view as benign. For example, a student who can’t stand to hear loud noises is not being bullied if he attends a football game where everyone is cheering. (Ms. Code Ann. § 37-11-67.)

Each school policy must include procedures for reporting, investigating, and addressing bullying behavior (including models for peer mediation and conflict resolution methods); and must recognize the right of students to reasonably defend themselves from attack or other menacing or threatening behavior. The law does not specify the extent of this “right,” but the inclusion of the “reasonable” language implies that the student may not take actions that a reasonable person would view are more severe than necessary to escape from or end the harassing behavior. (Ms. Code Ann. § 37-11-54 & -69.)

School-imposed sanctions do not preclude the victim from also seeking civil and criminal damages in court, described more under Penalties, below.

The Far Reaches of Cyberbullying

As mentioned above, cyberbullying is harassment that occurs through electronic media. In addition to the social and mental harm that bullying causes the victim, cyberbullying can be more serious for several reasons.

Internet access allows anyone who goes online to see images and messages posted there, so victims often suffer before a wider audience than when bullying is limited to the schoolyard. Furthermore, when data is posted online, it never really goes away (even if it is “deleted”). Because of this, the victim may suffer well beyond an analogous incident of face-to-face bullying. Images especially may resurface for years to come, affecting the victim’s future social relationships and professional opportunities.

And a schoolyard bully is usually easy to identify, but the Internet offers cyber bullies relative anonymity (for example, through a fake social media user profiles). 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

Cyberbullying, which may be prosecuted criminally under the statues described above, is a serious crime, and your attorney may recommend several defenses if you have been charged with one of these or a similar offense.

Free speech

Your right to free speech (especially where opinion is expressed) is protected by the 1st Amendment. However, this right is not absolute; the state may limit free speech when it is considered a serious and imminent threat. For example, you have probably heard about the classic example of someone yelling “fire!” in a crowded theatre. In context, this speech poses a serious and imminent threat of causing pandemonium and a dangerous stampede out of the theatre, and this kind of speech is therefore limited (not allowed) and can be prosecuted if it leads to injury.

When it comes to stalking and similar harassing behavior, speech containing a threat to the victim that is serious and imminent is also limited. For example, threats to use a weapon are limited speech when the victim knows the bully actually has such a weapon and is near enough to make good on the threat.

But the line between a legitimate expression of opinion and seriously threatening speech is not always as clear and easy to draw as in these examples. For this reason, it is worth exploring a free speech defense, especially if your words or actions were ambiguous enough that a reasonable person would not be in fear of harm (see below).

Not really threatening

As explained above, stalking requires the defendant’s actions to be ones that would put a reasonable person in fear of harm. 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.

This defense may apply to nonviolent or other nonthreatening activities intended to express the defendant’s political views or to provide lawful information to others, such as during a lawful protest or assembly. (Ms. Code Ann. § 97-45-15.)

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?

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

Acts against students

This offense is a misdemeanor, punishable with a fine of up to $500, up to six months in jail, or both. However, the case is handled in juvenile court when the defendant is a person younger than 17. Different penalties, including being adjudicated delinquent, apply in juvenile court. (Ms. Code Ann. § 37-11-20.)

Stalking and Aggravated Stalking

Stalking is a misdemeanor, and incurs a fine of up to $1,000, up to one year in jail, or both. When the crime involved violating a restraining order, and other similar circumstances, the penalties increase to a fine of up to $1,500, up to one year in jail, or both.

Aggravated stalking is a felony punished with a fine of up to $3,000, up to five years in prison, or both. The judge may also issue an order that restricts the defendant from contacting the victim. If, at the time of the offense, the defendant was required to register as a sex offender under a state law, and the victim was younger than 18 years old, penalties increase to a fine of up to $4,000, up to six years in prison, or both. (Ms. Code Ann. § 97-3-107.)

Cyberstalking

Cyberbullying is a felony, usually punished by a fine of up to $5,000, up to two years in prison, or both. However, when the offense occurred in violation of a restraining order; in violation of probation, parole, or pretrial release; and in other similar specified circumstances, the crime incurs a fine of up to $10,000, up to five years in prison, or both. (Ms. Code Ann. § 97-45-15.)

Civil Lawsuits

As you have seen, bullies may be punished under school policies and under state criminal statutes. Often, victims of bullying may also bring a civil lawsuit for the emotional, social, or financial harm caused by the offense. For example, the judge may award monetary judgements for property damage caused by the crime. Similarly, a bully may have to pay for the cost of therapy for the emotional distress caused to the victim.

Talk to a Lawyer

Bullying can lead to serious consequences for both the victim and the bully. If you have been charged with one of the crimes described above, or something similar, a qualified criminal defense attorney can help you understand the laws that apply to the unique circumstances of your case. Similarly, if you have been a victim of bullying or harassment, a lawyer can help you understand your options and chart your best course of legal action.

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