Cyberbullying and Cyberstalking Laws in Mississippi

A person who commits cyberbullying or cyberstalking in Mississippi can face serious criminal penalties, including substantial incarceration time and hefty fines.

By , Attorney

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.

Laws Prohibiting Cyberbullying and Cyberstalking in Mississippi

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: Crimes and Penalties

Cyberstalking occurs when an offender uses any form of electronic communication (such as email, messaging, or texting) to:

  • threaten to harm another person or their family or property
  • extort money or other valuables from another
  • threaten, terrify, or otherwise harass a victim through repeated contacts, or
  • make knowingly false statements regarding a person or their family with the intent of threatening, terrifying, or harassing them.

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.

Stalking and Aggravated Stalking: Crimes and Penalties

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:

  • displayed or used a deadly weapon with the intent to put the victim in fear of bodily injury or death (to the victim or another person)
  • has a previous stalking conviction in the seven years prior, or
  • was a registered sex offender at the time of the offense and stalked a minor (under 18).

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.

Obscene and Harassing Electronic Communications: Crimes and Penalties

A person also commits a crime by doing any of the following through an electronic communication:

  • sends obscene, lewd, or lascivious comments with the intent to abuse, threaten, or harass another person
  • threatens to inflict injury or physical harm to another person or their property with the intent to terrify, intimidate, or harass, or
  • allows someone else to use their device to commit the above acts.

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.

Possible Defenses to Cyberbullying and Cyberstalking

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

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.

Unreasonable Fear

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.

Will Teenagers Facing Criminal Charges Be Heard in Juvenile or Adult Court?

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.

State-Mandated School Anti-Bullying Policies

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.

Civil Lawsuits for Cyberbullying

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.

Talk to a Lawyer

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).)

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