Question: My son was bullied at school and the school did nothing. If I pass the names of the students along to a bully shaming group online, could I get in trouble?
Answer: Yes, you could.
Online anti-bullying activists include a wide spectrum of individuals, motivations, and tactics; and their acts have many potential ramifications. Generally speaking, online anti-bullying and anti-harassment activists are individuals who at times band together in very loosely-structured groups. The best-known of these is "Anonymous" and the subsidiary groups that have formed under its vast and amorphous umbrella of “hacktivism.”
Some of these groups formed in response to notorious bullying episodes (such as the suicide of a Canadian girl who was stalked and bullied by a man who coerced her into sending him a semi-nude photo of herself).
The “hacktivists,” also called “cyber avengers” by some, publicly shame alleged perpetrators by naming them. They also reveal other personal data about their targets, including addresses and social network profiles and handles, in what they call “doxxing” (for “documents”). Anonymous posted a Google Map screenshot of the house of the man who allegedly harassed the Canadian girl. The point is to inspire other people who are outraged by the alleged actions of the target to join the activists in writing blogs, or sending emails and tweets to and about the person.
At times the cyber avengers prod the authorities responsible for policing those involved in an incident to take action when authorities have been slow or ineffectual in their response. For example, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police launched an investigation into the Canadian girl’s suicide and the harassment leading up to it after Anonymous posted the information about the alleged harasser.
Critics of cyber avenging caution that an individual who wants to escalate the public punishment could take action “in real life” (as some in cyberspace call off-line reality), which is made relatively easy when they are armed with the data provided by doxxing. Obviously, anyone who physically assaults another person, even if motivated by a good faith belief that the victim was himself a perpetrator of a heinous act, may be charged with a crime. But, even actions confined to the internet can land an activist (or someone soliciting their assistance) in hot water.
In your situation, you may intend to protect your child by deterring those who are bullying him with the help of groups like those described above. Be aware, though, that some of the tactics used by anti-bullying groups may violate laws in your state, especially because the bullies are minors.
The public release of private data, including over the internet or on social networking sites, may violate state law. Some states, including California, even have state constitutional provisions that protect the privacy of citizens. Under some state laws, minors enjoy even greater privacy protection than adults in order to protect them from predatory actions by sex offenders and others. If you are involved in the release of private information about a minor, you could be subject to prosecution.
You could also find yourself the defendant in a civil action by the bullies’ parents, as violation of privacy is a civil wrong in many states.
It may seem ironic, but you could be charged with cyberharassment yourself if your actions lead to an online campaign against the bullies. Many states bar repeated and systematic emails, tweets, and the like when used to annoy, harass, or bother another person. Your motives would be no defense to such a charge. You can read more information about cyberharassment in Harassment and Cyberbullying as Crimes.
The bullies’ parents could also sue you and your fellow avengers for defamation if you post anything that falsely accuses the bullies of illegal or immoral acts. Even if you hew closely to the truth in your depiction of events, the bullies’ parents could sue you. Truth is a defense to defamation, but you may be forced to hire a lawyer and prove the truth of your statements in court.
If the bullies have broken the law in their actions against your son, your proposed online activities could hamper the investigation and prosecution of the crimes. Publicity about events may provide the defendants with an argument that they cannot get a fair trial in your area. Witnesses may be reluctant to come forward if the situation has “trended” on social networking sites.
Before you resort to the risky tactics you are considering, make sure you have exhausted the official avenues to address your son’s situation. If the administration won’t protect him, go to the school board. Talk to the police to see if the bullies’ actions have violated criminal laws. And, talk to a lawyer about possibly taking civil action yourself against the bullies or their parents. Your desire to protect your son is understandable but you could make his and your lives harder by dabbling in mob justice.