Cyberbullying is a real problem in Pennsylvania and across the U.S. This is a type of bullying that occurs online and frequently happens on social media and through text messaging. Teenagers can be the victims or perpetrators of cyberbullying, and this type of behavior can result in potential civil and criminal liability. Here is some information about cyberbullying laws in Pennsylvania from DiCindio Law.
What Laws Apply to Cyberbullying in Pennsylvania?
There are a few criminal laws that can be applied to cyberbullying in Pennsylvania. The Commonwealth also has a statewide anti-bullying policy. Students might face penalties under either avenue.
Cyberbullying and Criminal Laws
Depending on the facts and circumstances, cyberbullying might be charged as harassment under 18 Pa. C.S. § 2709. Under this statute, people might face harassment charges when they communicated with the intent to annoy or alarm the victim in a threatening manner. Harassment charges might also be filed if the perpetrator communicated to or about the victim using obscenities or in a lewd or lascivious way. Under § 2709(a.1), a person can be charged with cyber harassment of a child when he or she repeatedly sends messages by electronic means or social media to the victim that disparage or demean the child’s physical appearance, sexuality, mental health, or physical condition.
In situations in which the perpetrator also engages in repeated acts that demonstrate his or her intent to place the victim in serious emotional distress or in fear that he or she will be injured, someone who engages in cyberbullying might also be charged with stalking under 18 Pa. C.S. § 2709.1.
State Anti-bullying Policies
Public schools in Pennsylvania are required to have anti-bullying policies that are incorporated into their codes of conduct. These policies include disciplinary measures for bullying and list the staff members who receive allegations of bullying and investigate them. Schools review their anti-bullying policies with students at least annually and are required to post the policy in a public place within the school building under 24 Pa. C.S. § 13-1303.1-A.
Why Cyberbullying Is Dangerous
Before the rise of the internet, students who were bullied at school could escape their torment when they were away from school. However, the ubiquitous nature of social media and the internet means that people who are the victims of cyberbullying can no longer escape it. This makes cyberbullying especially damaging. Cyberbullying also involves the abuse of a victim in front of a broader audience, and multiple people might be involved.
While school bullies are readily identifiable, cyberbullies might also be anonymous. This can make victims more fearful when their cyberbullies hide behind fake profiles and user accounts. This anonymity might also allow the bully to be crueler than he or she might act in person.
Cyberbullying can also be damaging for the abusers. The information they post online never goes away, which means that the abusive posts they target towards their victims can come back later to haunt them. Engaging in cyberbullying as a teenager might later come back to impact the abuser in his or her future job opportunities since many employers screen applicants by searching for information about them online.
Defending Against Criminal Charges Related to Cyberbullying
There are a few different ways to defend against harassment or stalking charges based on cyberbullying. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can carefully review the situation to identify the defenses that might be available.
One potential defense is the right to free speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While you do have free speech rights, they are not absolute. Speech can be limited by the state when it involves an imminent, serious threat. In the case of cyberbullying, the right to free speech might be circumscribed when the bully threatens to harm the victim, and the victim reasonably believes that he or she might be imminently harmed. However, the line between legitimate expressions and threatening speech can be blurry, making free speech a potential defense based on the circumstances of a case.
Penalties for Cyberbullying or Bullying
The penalties for cyberbullying depend on the particular offense with which the person is charged. If the person is convicted of harassment, the punishment will depend on the underlying behavior. For example, repeatedly contacting someone with the purpose to annoy or alarm without a legitimate purpose is a summary offense, which can include up to 90 days in jail and a fine.
However, repeatedly contacting a victim anonymously, at inconvenient hours, or in a threatening manner is a third-degree misdemeanor. A conviction can result in up to 12 months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. Additional penalties will apply to defendants who are convicted of harassing victims in violation of a protective order involving the same victim.
If a defendant is convicted of stalking based on his or her cyberbullying of the victim, it is a first-degree misdemeanor. This can result in up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. If it is a second or subsequent conviction for stalking, it is a third-degree felony carrying up to seven years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.
While cyberbullies might face criminal prosecution and face school discipline, they might also face civil lawsuits filed by their victims or their victims’ families. These lawsuits are meant to pursue monetary compensation for the victims for their economic and non-economic losses. For example, a cyberbully might be ordered to pay damages to a victim to pay for the costs of therapy, emotional distress, and other losses.
Get Help From an Experienced Attorney
If you or your child is facing charges related to cyberbullying, you should meet with an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. A conviction related to cyberbullying can seriously impact your life and your future. The experienced criminal defense lawyer at DiCindio Law can help you to understand how the law applies to what happened and the defenses that you might be able to raise. Call us today at (610) 430-3535 to request a consultation.