Cyberbullying Case Summary: Fatal NJ University Incident
In 2010, Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi tragically jumped to his death after learning his roommate, Dharun Ravi, secretly recorded footage of him kissing another man, and then posted it online.
The State of New Jersey used bias intimidation laws to prosecute Ravi (State of New Jersey vs. Dharun Ravi) in the seminal cyberbullying case. In 2012, a court convicted him on 15 counts. Ravi “was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 3 years probation, 300 hours of community service, a $10,000 fine, and counseling on cyberbullying and alternate lifestyles.”
Judge Ordered Retrial
In 2015, however, New Jersey’s Supreme Court put an end to the state’s bias intimidation law, declaring it unconstitutional. The legal dominoes fell, and in 2016, an appeals court ordered a new trial, since four of Ravi’s counts stemmed from an unconstitutional edict.
Despite the decision, judges in the cyberbullying case emphatically condemned Ravi’s actions and presented an emotional opprobrium:
“The social environment that transformed a private act of sexual intimacy into a grotesque voyeuristic spectacle must be unequivocally condemned in the strongest possible way. The fact that this occurred in a university dormitory, housing first-year college students, only exacerbates our collective sense of disbelief and disorientation.”
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Originally Posted: Friday, September 30th, 2016
Cyberbullying is a growing concern for families. Children are being terrorized by classmates and peers, resulting in serious psychological stresses.
As a firm that helps clients combat cyber harassment, we’ve put together an infographic to help interested parties better understand the epidemic.
Nova Scotia’s new Cyber-Safety Act is making headlines, but for all the wrong reasons. While the law was crafted with the best of intentions, the loose and overarching wording of the legislation is leaving many people mystified. The act is so broad; the potential for misuse is almost a guaranteed conclusion.
The Cyber-Safety Act defines cyberbullying as “any electronic communication that might reasonably be expected to humiliate another person or harm their emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation.”
It sounds great, until you apply some critical thought.
An email or telephone call telling you that you’ve been fired from your job will most likely harm your self-esteem. A text message or post to Facebook advising you that your partner has broken off your relationship will almost certainly harm your emotional well-being. This law, in essence, has made it illegal to post, text, call, or electronically distribute anything upsetting to anyone.
The penalties are also a matter of slack-jawed surprise. Judges have their choice of punishments, including seizing your computer or telephone, your Internet connection can be shut off, and you can be banned from using electronic devices indefinitely. Considering just about anyone who upsets the wrong person by using an electronic device can be punished in this manner, the potential for reverse bullying is huge.
While no one has yet attempted to use Nova Scotia’s Cyber Safety Act nefariously, it’s simply a matter of time. What’s even worse is that an IP address is used as ‘an address’. Meaning if your roommate could be convicted of cyberbullying and your Internet and your computer will be shut off and seized. It’ll be interesting to see this play out in university dormitories, apartment complexes and other venues where virtual strangers are forced to share space and Internet service.
The intention of the act is good, but it’s only a matter of time before sending a text to your neighbor advising them that their dog has been struck by a car is used as reason enough to strip you of your electronics and Internet connection. Changes to the act are the most likely outcome once the loopholes become clear to legislators.
Michigan May Have A New Cyberbullying Law Soon
Originally Posted: Friday, October 18th, 2013
Michigan is the latest state to make moves towards a codified cyberbullying law. Last week, The State Senate Judiciary Committee approved a new amendment to its 2011 anti-bullying statute – a statute which requires schools to develop a plan to protect students from harassment, intimidation and physical violence.
What Will The New Michigan Cyberbullying Law Do?
If gaveled in by the Michigan Senate, the new amendment will officially recognize online bullying as a form of prosecutable harassment. As such, public schools in the state will have to develop procedures to protect students from cyberbullying. Moreover, if the new amendment passes, schools will have to submit an annual report to the government about the status of their cyberbullying prevention and punishment program.
When asked for comments about the new anti-cyberbullying law, bill sponsor Sen. Glenn Anderson expressed his pleasure with the pending regulation and explained that Internet bullying is far more pervasive and damaging than “face-to-face” bullying amongst today’s tweens and teens.
Family of Bullied Teen Spearhead’s Michigan Online Harassment Amendment
The new bill was spearheaded by Kevin Epling, father of Matt Epling who tragically took his own life at 14 after being cyberbullied by older students at his school. Ostensibly as a way to honor his son’s memory and help other cyberbullying victims, the Eplings started BullyPolice USA – a non-profit that addresses issues related to Internet harassment. When asked about the possible new Michigan law, the Eplings expressed their pleasure. Specifically, the family took the time to reminded readers that their family was not the only Michigan family to suffer the pains of cyberbullying related suicide, saying that 25 to 30 families in Michigan alone have had to deal with the nightmare.
Potential Problem With Michigan’s Anti-Cyberbullying Law
Legally speaking, what makes the new Michigan law interesting is that the state is essentially giving schools permission to regulate their student body off campus. After all, Internet harassment and cyberbullying can happen any time of day – at school, at home and anywhere in between. In theory, the reach of the legislation could spark a contentious constitutional legal battle. It will be interesting to see if a lawsuit spawns from this new law if it passes.
Do you need to speak with an attorney about the legalities of a cyberbullying legal issue? Contact Kelly Warner Law.
Difficulties Of Passing A Federal Cyberbullying Law (Hint: The First Amendment)
Originally Posted: Saturday, March 2nd, 2013
Cyberbullying is a serious problem. Every day, minors are tormented online by peers and parents of peers. To escape the emotional prison caused by cyber harassment, some victims, like Missouri teenager Megan Meier, have even paid the ultimate price.
Recognizing the destructive effects of cyberbullying, victim advocacy groups have pushed for online harassment laws, and politicians have hastened to draft effective statutes.
But few cyberbullying prevention laws have passed.
Why is a seemingly straightforward task – creating a law that prevents kids from harassing peers online – proving so difficult? Why can’t politicians strike the right balance between curbing dangerous digital harassment and protecting free speech? In most cases, the failure to pass a proper cyberbully law is a result of sloppy legal language that creates free speech loop holes.
Below are three examples of online harassment laws introduced within the last 12 months. Notice a pattern?
New York’s Cyberbullying Bill: Politicians Wanted To Outlaw Anonymous Online Speech, But Were Sent Back To The Drafting Table
The Internet Protection Act is New York legislators’ attempt to combat cyberbullying. It aims to limit anonymous online comments. Specifically, the draft bill outlines a process wherein victims are forced to “claim” offensive posts. If the poster refuses to reveal their legal name, the website operator would be compelled to remove the material. Legislators introduced the bill, but then quickly pulled it for language revisions. At the time of this writing, co-sponsors of the statute haven’t announced a re-introduction of the revised bill.
While touted as a cyberbullying prevention act, the IPA also includes protection, for elected officials, from “mean spirited and baseless political attacks.” The Internet Protection Act specifically mentions trade libel, as well.
Illinois’s Cyberbullying Proposal: Legislators Proposed Limits on Anonymous Online Speech, But Quickly Crawled Back & Are Now Working on Another Option
On February 13, 2013, Illinois State Senate representative Ira I. Silverstein introduced the Internet Posting Removal Act – SB 1614. Like New York’s proposal, Silverstein addresses the issue of anonymous cyberbullying. He admits to reading the New York draft and told reporters it was the inspiration for his proposal. (Guess he didn’t wait to see how it turned out.)
An aggressive piece of legislation, SB1614 aims to ameliorate cyberbullying thusly:
Anonymous Internet poster; right to know. A web site administrator upon request shall remove any comments posted on his or her website by an anonymous poster unless the anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post and confirms that his or her IP address, legal name and home address are accurate. All website administrators shall have a contact number or e-mail address posted for such removal requests clearly visible in any section where comments are posted.
When you read the bill solely through cyberbullying prevention lenses, it makes sense. But what happens when Politicians start using the statute to silence critics? Precise language is a must when it comes to laws; loose lips sink ships and loose language can annihilate freedoms.
Arizona’s Cyberbullying Law: At First It Failed, Then Succeeded After Some Language Changes
In the spring of 2012, the Arizona State Legislator passed House Bill 2549; its homologation outraged free speech advocates. Detractors bristled over a broadly worded excerpt from the bill:
“It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend to use a telephone or any electronic device and use obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act, or threaten to inflict physical harm to the person or property of any person.”
Arizona’s Governor, Jan Brewer, agreed with the bill’s detractors. That language would have to change or she’d veto HB 2549. So, sponsors went back to the white board, struck the words “annoy or offend,” and made it clear that a threat must be lodged against a specific person. With those changes, Gov. Brewer signed it into law on May 15, 2012. As such, it is now illegal in Arizona “for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten or harass a specific person or persons” to do the following:
Direct any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act to the person in an electronic communication.
Disturb by repeated anonymous, unwanted or unsolicited electronic communications.
The Arizona cyberbullying law does dedicate a section to the precedence of constitutionally protected speech.
After changes, Arizona passed their cyberbullying law last year. If New York and Illinois review their proposals and figure out a way to balance online harassment deterrence with First Amendment rights, expect both states to have a new cyberbullying law in the coming year.
The UK Parliament, Facebook, Twitter, and Cyberbullying
Originally Posted: Thursday, September 20th, 2012
A UK politician is leading the charge to take on Internet trolls and cyberbullies using social media to publish their harassment. How? He wants to change the UK’s Malicious Communications Act.
According to reports, in recent days, MP Steven Rotheram led a rousing parliamentary debate concerning Internet trolls. He was trying to convince his countrymen to change the Malicious Communications Act, by adding specific language for social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.
Rotheram is a member of the British Labour Party and served as an MP (Member of Parliament) for both Liverpool and Walton. Elected in 2010, Rotheram currently holds a seat on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of Parliament.
Rotheram has always been passion about cybercrime; his desire to take on Internet trolls is not new. In fact, he has spent around 12 months researching the facts as well as conducting high-level meetings with leading prosecutors.
On Monday, Rotheram was not shy about expressing his opinion about Internet trolls to parliament.
“When our predecessors were putting down these bills they did not envisage that sickos would use these new inventions for these purposes. No-one wants to deny anyone the opportunity of freedom of speech, but with that freedom comes responsibility. You shouldn’t say things through the anonymity of a computer that you wouldn’t say face to face,” he told the Liverpool Echo.
The issue of Georgia Varley was raised. After she died by falling under a train, her Facebook account was hijacked, then used for abuse and mischief. A lot of the trolls on the hijacked Facebook site didn’t even know Georgia; some were even from other countries.
Facebook released a statement saying, “it is against Facebook’s rules to intimidate or harass others, and we provide everyone with the tools to report such content. When abuse is reported to us, we react swiftly, and we will disable accounts that are found to be in breach of our terms.”
The Liverpool Echo went as far as naming some of the pseudonyms in an attempt to publicly shame the guilty. Similar incidents after the Hillsborough disaster prompted Rotheram to speak with Facebook officials about the problem, saying they needed to combat the problem of Internet trolls and cyberbullying more forcefully.
Rotheram did say that existing laws – the Malicious Communications Act (MCA) mainly – could be used to prosecute in cyber abuse cases, but cautioned that the legislation needs new language to keep up with the rapidly changing online landscape.
The MCA states that sending messages that are “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” can be classed as an offense under the law.
Facebook, the First Amendment, and the Future of Cyberbullying Law
In 2012, a group of tweens pelted a schoolmate — we’ll call her *Tina* — on Facebook. Take down requests to Facebook went unanswered, and since the incidents happened outside of school, police and school officials’ hands were tied. But instead of giving up, Tina filed a defamation lawsuit, which raised a question worth considering: What are the chances of winning a defamation lawsuit filed in response to a cyberbullying situation?
The crux of this cyberbullying law case centers on a phony Facebook profile. The page is made to look like Tina controls it and includes childish barbs. For example, the page lists Tina’s native language as “Retardish”; it also features a racist video — again, posted under Tina’s name. On advice of police, Tina and her family reported the fake page. Unfortunately, Facebook didn’t respond in a timely manner. So, instead of waiting, Tina, with the help of her parents, filed a defamation lawsuit against the perpetrators.
Why defamation? Because the page appeared to be Tina’s creation. Plus, the things posted on the page were untrue and had a deleterious effect on Tina’s reputation.
This is not the first case where someone has been taken to court for making a “parody” or phony page online. The Associated Press wrote:
Justin Layshock of western Pennsylvania was suspended after he created a MySpace parody in 2005 that said his principal smoked marijuana and hid beer behind his desk. The suspension was overturned by a federal judge, who found that school officials failed to show the student’s profile disrupted school operations. The judge’s decision was later upheld by an appeals court.
In West Virginia, Kara Kowalski sued school officials after she was suspended from her high school for five days in 2005 for creating a web page suggesting another student had a sexually transmitted disease. A federal appeals court upheld the suspension, dismissing Kowalski’s argument that the school shouldn’t punish her because she created the site at home.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear either case.
The Anatomy of A Cyberbullying Defamation Lawsuit
Now that you know a little bit more about the case, let’s talk about the applicable law.
SOCTUS Doesn’t Seem Interested Yet
When bad conduct happens away from school, schools’ hands are tied when it comes to doling out punishments. Quite a few cases have been tried in the courts – but so far, SCOTUS has declined to hear such cases.
The Issue of Harm
Basically, libel is a false, negligent, harmful statement. So, in this cyberbullying law suit, one of the main issues became: was Tina materially harmed by the bullying?
Because the fake page creators knew each other and knew the postings were false, it may be hard for her attorneys to prove actual damage. And if the bullies didn’t believe the false information they posted, did other students believe it?
Parody & Satire Aren’t Defamatory
Remember “The People v. Larry Flynt,” the movie based on Hustler Magazine v. Falwell? Parody figured centrally in that case; the decision ultimately being: reasonable people wouldn’t believe the cartoon over which Falwell sued. Otherwise stated: satire and parody aren’t defamatory.
The same theory applies here. Did any of Tina’s schoolmates actually believe the information on the fake Facebook page? Moreover, can tweens be considered “reasonable people” when it comes to emotional stresses?
Other Options For Cyberbully Plaintiffs
What may have been a better tact for Tina? Instead of defamation, perhaps she should have focused on just one of the false claims in her lawsuit, thereby narrowing the scope, making a ruling in her favor more likely. Moreover, it may have been beneficial as Julie Hilden points out, for her to have filed an “intentional infliction of emotional distress” claim.
Speak With A Professional About Your Cyberbullying Situation
So, did Tina win the case? Truth be told: we can’t find information on how the case resolved. Best guess: either the case is on-going, it was settled, or dismissed.
Does that mean a cyberbully defamation case won’t work for you, too? Not necessarily.
Cyberbullying Lawyer: Defamation May Be An Option To Combat Cyberbullying
Originally Posted: Friday, June 1st, 2012
Cyberbullying kills. Legislators now realize the severity of the situation and are working to craft effective solutions. And these days, cyberbullying lawyers are creatively using torts — like defamation — to fight back.
What Is Cyberbullying, Legally Speaking?
Simply put, cyberbullying occurs when someone uses a digital or mobile devices to harass, torment, or threaten another person. Malicious embarrassment and humiliation may also be considered cyberbullying in the eyes of the law.
Digital Harassment Hurts
Sadly, cyberbullying suicides are becoming common; but thankfully, officials aren’t turning their cheeks. Already, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Washington have specific cyberbullying laws on the books (at the time of this writing; things may have changed since). States that don’t yet have specific statutes are using other regulations and doctrines to punish flagrant cyberbullying.
Defamation Law As A Defense Weapon?
More often than not, cyberbullying incidents involve lies, which is why many people are turning towards defamation statutes to combat cyberbullying. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. One’s chances largely depend on jurisdiction.
Cyberbullying lawyer Aaron Kelly explained, “It’s possible to win a defamation lawsuit against harassers. It all depends on the facts of the situation. But yes, people have been winning these types of cases.”
Consult With A Cyberbullying Lawyer
Are you — or a family member — suffering under the hands of a cyberbully? If you’re considering legal action, let’s consult about your options. Different jurisdictions follow different rules. Depending on where you live, you may have a solid case.