Is Cyberbullying Illegal? A Breakdown By State
Bullying has probably been around since the beginning of time, but times are changing quickly. With the advancement and easy accessibility of technology, a whole new realm of bullying has taken a nasty root in today’s society. Cyberbullying, commonly understood to be the use of any electronic communication device to harass, intimidate, or bully, is here, and it is vicious.
Why is Cyberbullying Scary for Kids?
Cyberbullying is even more difficult to escape than traditional face-to-face bullying. It can happen undetected 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at any hour. Because the sender can easily hide behind the keyboard with no visual evidence of the victim’s hurt, cyberbullying messages and images are often posted anonymously and distributed quickly to a very wide audience. It can be nearly impossible to trace the source and put an end to it. Once those messages and images are out there, it is extremely difficult to delete them. So what is being done to legally protect our children against it?
What Does the Law Say?
There currently is no federal law, policy, or school sanction against cyberbullying. HR1966 was proposed in 2009 to institute a federal law, but it has yet to come to fruition, largely due to contradictions with Freedom of Speech. However, all 50 states do have bullying laws, and 48 of these laws include electronic harassment. Only 18 of them include criminal sanctions. 12 more of them have proposed criminal sanctions. Although there is a long way to go, there is a legislative push towards cracking down on cyberbullying as a crime.
Schools are being more proactive, and 45 states have some form of school sanction for cyberbullying taking place on campus. Unfortunately, only 14 of them involve off-campus infractions. Montana alone doesn’t have any kind of school policy.
A complete breakdown of state by state rules and policies can be found at Cyberbullying.org. In a nutshell, as of 2016, 24 states had cyberbullying policies of some sort in place–however, not all states have these policies. Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming are the states that DO NOT have official laws or policies in place.
Guidelines and penalties vary from state to state. Most require schools to have some kind of policy in place. Many leave it up to the schools to determine punishment. California, however, has clearly stated that schools can suspend or permanently expel offenders based on each individual case. California passed this law, known as “Seth’s Law” in 2011 after 13 year old Seth Walsh committed suicide after being cyberbullied about his sexual orientation and identity.
Oklahoma recently passed the anti-bullying law Bill 1661. While it addresses bullying in general, it specifically focuses on cyberbullying so schools have more power to address this growing issue. With the new law, schools can use law enforcement to intervene. It allows schools to maintain internal records of cyberbullying for police investigation. It ultimately relieves Oklahoma schools from having to address it themselves when their hands are often tied from any meaningful ramification. It moves the punishment from a a school consequence to legal matter.
California and Oklahoma are just two examples of states with school-based laws. Even in states that don’t have explicit cyberbullying laws, schools are most often the first line of defense against it, and they are being held accountable. Specifically, schools that fail to respond appropriately to protected class harassment, including cyberbullying, may be held in violation of one or more civil rights laws enforced by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, thus greatly influencing their monitoring of student activity.
To prevent this from happening, schools must take specific steps when such cyberbullying is reported. They must conduct a full investigation and resolve the situation to be freed of any civil rights violations. This includes:
- Immediate and appropriate investigation to determine what happened. Interviews must be held with targeted students, offending students, and witnesses, and the inquiries must be prompt, thorough, and unbiased.
- Written documentation of the investigation must be maintained.
- Targeted students must be followed up with to ensure the harassment ceased.
- A plan must be developed and implemented to end the harassment and eliminate any hostile environment, as well as prevent the bullying from recurring and prevent retaliation against the victims.
Other states have moved beyond school policy to statewide laws. These specifically charge repeat offenders with misdemeanors, varying in classification based on the offender and victims’ ages and whether or not it is a first offense. Missouri has amongst the strictest law, allowing for the misdemeanor to become a felony if the offender is over 21 and the victim is under 17, and the offender has done it before.
Although Colorado is one of the states yet to pass a specific cyberbullying law, it does have a harassment law that can be interpreted to include electronic harassment. It packs a heavy punch. A Misdemeanor 3, it can carry a $50 fine and up to six months in jail. If it is proven to have been done based on the victim’s race, color, religion, or ancestry, it can become a Misdemeanor 1 and carry 6-18 months in jail.
Obviously, guidelines vary widely from state to state, but there is a significant national trend towards harsher legislation and criminal punishment towards cyberbullying. Strides are being made school, state, and nationwide. Although a federal law may be difficult to pass due to Freedom of Speech, the message is being sent loud and clear that cyberbullying will not be tolerated. As the rules and consequences continue to evolve, parents continue to be the frontline for keeping their children safe online. Know what your child is doing online, and know your school and state laws should they become a victim of cyberbullying.