Internet bullying, more commonly referred to as cyberbullying represents the use of the internet or mobile device to intimidate, harass, or inflict harm to others. Although bullying has been common in society, it has in recent times moved from learning institutions to social platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, emails as well as mobile text messages. Cyberbullying has harmful consequences on the victims. Some of these consequences range from psychological suffering alongside suicidal attempts and ideations. It is important to note that cyberbullying presents unique features and challenges for individuals that would want to pursue legal action. However, several states have recently responded to the increase in cyberbullying cases and established laws around cyberbullying or electronic harassment.
Facts about Cyberbullying
Despite the absence of audible insults or physical contact, cyberbullying can as traumatizing as other forms of traditional bullying. A study by Brochado, Soares & Fraga (2017) reports that approximately 75% of cyberbullying occurs through insults from the cyber-bully while the other form of bullying involves exclusion from the online community. Victims of cyberbullying report that the bullying involves unlawful or illegal access of personal information such as fraudulent use of email addresses, online trespass, and unlawful access to personal accounts.
There were no specific cyberbullying laws until the mid-2000s. However, this does not imply that legislators have not been following keenly the increasing trend of cyberbullying incidents which at times result in tragic incidents of school shootings and suicide. Despite the evidence that is often presented in courts about the effects of cyberbullying, legislators at both the federal and state have not found effective ways of addressing cyberbullying. The main challenge behind cyberbullying is the fact that the United States has for a long time been molded by the right of the public to express their opinions freely. Controlling cyberbullying is therefore perceived as an infringement of the 1st amendment. United States’ 1st Amendment prohibits the government from making laws that control the establishment of a religion, control freedom of speech, freedom of the press as well as the right to petition the government and other public bodies for a redress of grievances (Post, 2017). Therefore, when cyberbullying cases are presented to courts, the plaintiff’s side bases their argument on the court’s attempt to limit the rights that are provided in the 1st Amendment. This then throws judges into prolonged court sessions trying to define what cyberbullying is and identifying the proper sanctions for individuals that propagate cyberbullying acts. It is for this reason that most cases that involved freedom of speech such as cyberbullying found their way up to the U.S Supreme Court. The other issue about cyberbullying is that although laws are in place to guide the course of action in cases involving cyberbullying, the enforcement part of these laws is left in the hands of school administrations. More importantly, cyberbullying cases are most of the time treated as civil cases and not criminal in nature as they should be.
The recent increase in cyberbullying cases has led to the establishment of several laws by states across the United States. Prosecutors often refer to existing laws to prosecute persons that are suspected to have engaged in cyberbullying acts. More importantly, criminal harassment statutes have been used as a basis for delivering rulings in severe cases especially in instances that result in suicide or other tragic incidents. States across the U.S have also established cyber harassment statutes which provide guidelines for charging internet bullies in certain states (Hinduja, n.d). The guidelines are driven towards establishing policies against bullying both in school and off-school environments.
The other law that captures cyberbullying and provides directions on what should be done is the Safe Place to Learn Act which was enacted in California (California Legislative Information, n.d). This act describes internet bullying as harassment especially in learning institutions but also goes further and includes communication by electronic act as another avenue for propagating bullying. Besides citing that students have the right to attend schools that are safe and peaceful, the Act also describes the use of electronic media to intimidate others as a misdemeanor that is punishable either by a fine of up to $1, 000 or a jail term of one year (California Legislative Information, n.d).
The other law that has offered insight into internet bullying is the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act which was adopted by the state of Florida. This law forbids bullying of K-12 students. It specifically addresses the concern of internet bullying which it describes as harassment or intimidation done through technology or electronic communication). The law does not have any criminal sanctions on individuals that have been charged for bullying but dictate that school administrations should draft policies on cyber bullying and amiably report the instances.
Lastly, Missouri is another state that has actively been involved in managing cases of internet bullying. According to the Missouri Statute, bullying represents any form of intimidation or harassment that is done either through sound, image, message, or electronic devices (FindLaw, n.d). In Missouri, individuals who are found guilty of bullying others through social media through violent threats are charged with harassment which is categorized as a class A misdemeanor. However, the crime becomes a class D felony if the defendant is 21 years old or older and the victim is 17 years old or younger.
Penalties for Internet Bullying
The penalties differ depending on the state where the internet bullying was committed. Often cyberbullying laws may result in civil penalties such as suspension or expulsion by school administration or serving a jail term for certain misdemeanors or felonies. The main difference of cyberbullying laws involves criminal vs. administrative sanctions for violations. A good example is Florida where the law does not have criminal charges against internet bullying but directs school boards to come up with administrative penalties such as expulsion or suspension against individuals that have been convicted with internet bullying. This is different in other states such as Missouri where offenders can be charged for violent threats that are expressed through social media platforms and other electronic devices.
Internet bullying is a subject that is rapidly evolving in law. The impact of internet bullying has far-reaching ramifications such as causing mental distress, loss of self-esteem, developing suicidal ideations, and suicidal attempts. Cases dealing with cyberbullying have been difficult to handle as prosecutors always argue that it is against the 1st Amendment that offers citizens the right to free speech. However, in recent times different states such as Florida, Missouri, and California have stood against cyberbullying acts by establishing laws that offer the course of action against cyberbullying.
- Brochado, S., Soares, S., & Fraga, S. (2017). A scoping review on studies of cyberbullying prevalence among adolescents. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 18(5), 523-531;
- California Legislative Information (n.d). School safety: Safe Place to Learn Act. Retrieved from; https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201520160AB2845[Accessed 8/12/2019];
- FindLaw (n.d). Missouri Revised Statutes Title XI. Education and Libraries § 160.775. Antibullying policy required–definition–requirements—cyberbullying. Retrieved from; https://codes.findlaw.com/mo/title-xi-education-and-libraries/mo-rev-st-160-775.html [Accessed 8/12/2019];
- Florida department of education (fdoe) (n.d). Bullying Prevention. Retrieved from; http://www.fldoe.org/safe-schools/bullying-prevention.stml[Accessed 8/12/2019];
- Hinduja. S (n.d). State Bullying Laws. Retrieved from https://cyberbullying.org/Bullying-and-Cyberbullying-Laws.pdf [Accessed 8/12/2019];
- Post, R. (2017). The Classic First Amendment Tradition Under Stress: Freedom of Speech and the University. Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper, (619).