Question: My husband and I are doctors in Nashville and vocal advocates of the importance of childhood vaccines. We’ve spoken at seminars and written on the topic. Now we are online targets of bothan angry and, at times, threatening anti-vaccine group, and the heroes of the pro-vaccine bloggers. I’m inclined to join forces with our defenders but my husband wants to see if we can take legal action. What should we/can we do?
Answer: Your husband’s approach, while definitely “old school,” is the better course—unless you prefer to live dangerously and provoke legal action against yourselves. In that case, follow your inclination (possibly all the way to jail).
The global, immediate reach of internet communications is one of the technological hallmarks of this era. Like all great extensions of human capacity, this one has the potential for intentional and inadvertent misuse. Given its huge scope, it has a huge capacity to do harm.
Online activists take many forms, from the hacktivist group Anonymous to the anti-vaccine movement. These activists use the rapid and broad dissemination of information to promote their positions. Some activists also use the tool of the internet as a weapon against opponents.
Of course, expressing an opinion about a matter of public interest is, in general, protected speech. However, if the activists cross the line into harassment or stalking, you may have grounds to take legal action.
At present, forty-one states, including Tennessee, make cyberharassment a crime. A good resource for finding state laws against cyberharassment and cyberstalking is the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Like most states with cyberharassment laws, Tennessee includes cyberharassment in its general harassment law. (Tenn. Code Ann. 39-17-308.) Under the law’s definition, a person engages in harassment when he or she communicates (by telephone, electronic communication, or otherwise) words or images to another; and a reasonable person would perceive the communication as threatening. To the extent that the activists who are targeting you and your husband have sent or posted threatening messages, they have committed the crime of cyberharassment under your state’s law and you should report the matter to the police. Be sure to take screenshots of the incriminating posts and messages to bring in as evidence.
Thirty-eight states, including Tennessee, make cyberstalking a crime. Along with more familiar types of stalking, cyberstalking via electronic communication is included in Tennessee’s anti-stalking statute. (Tenn. Code Ann. 39-17-315.) That law defines stalking as two or more separate acts of harassment against a victim that would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress. Certain of the anti-vaccine activists may have also violated this law.
There are certain civil claims that you and your husband may be able bring against the activists who have targeted you.
If any of the activists have revealed private information about you or your husband, they may have violated the privacy laws in your state. If so, you could sue them for violation of privacy.
A knowingly false public statement that injures your reputation is defamation and may provide you with grounds to sue any activist who has made such a statement in a blog, tweet, or on a social networking site.
It is often quite difficult to identify the individuals responsible for tweets and online posts. The anonymity conferred by online handles allows individuals to lash out at others from behind the mask of a pseudonym. But it is possible to unmask these cowards. Contact an attorney with experience in online privacy and other breaches of individual rights. A cautionary note: if you do the digging yourself, you may risk violating state privacy laws.
That caution applies to your inclination to take on the haters by joining up with your defenders to fight the online battle. This could be a mistake because the same laws that protect you from cyberharassment and cyberstalking also protect the activists. Take the high (legal) road and contact the authorities and an attorney in your area to protect yourselves.