Bullies will probably always be a fixture in our schools and on our playgrounds, but when bullies go online to commit cyberbullying, in most states, they will be breaking the law. Keep reading to learn how lawmakers across the country are responding to the growing concerns about cyberbullying, how to deal with cyberbullying if it targets you or your child, and what to do if you’re falsely accused of the crime.

Why is cyberbullying such a growing concern? Because when they go online, cyberbullies post threats and insults that potentially reach a global audience, and in almost all cases, those threats and insults remain posted – in effect, forever. The anonymity that the internet offers not only lets bullies be meaner and more aggressive, but it also makes them more difficult to identify and apprehend.

Cyberbullying has become increasingly common – one could almost say “popular” – among teenagers. What is the worst consequence of cyberbullying? On its page titled “List of suicides that have been attributed to bullying,” Wikipedia lists twenty suicide victims, mostly teens whose suicides were linked to cyberbullying within the last fifteen years.

WHAT CAN HAPPEN AFTER CYBERBULLYING?

Audrie Pott was a 15-year-old in Saratoga, California who committed suicide on September 12, 2012. She had been sexually assaulted at a party, eight days earlier, and pictures of the assault along with bullying-type comments had been posted online. Phoebe Prince, also 15, also committed suicide after being targeted for cyberbullying. Massachusetts lawmakers reacted to her death with a tougher anti-bullying statute.

Could your own child be at risk? Precisely what constitutes cyberbullying? And how does the state of Washington deal with cyberbullying through the criminal justice system? Keep reading, especially if you are a parent in our state. You’re about to learn those answers and more about cyberbullying and related crimes.

Cyberbullying can include “trolling” and “cyberstalking.” Cyberstalking is considered the most dangerous cyberbullying because it often implies a genuine threat to a victim’s safety. “Trolls” try to provoke or offend others online; while some are cyberbullies, others are simply teen mischief-makers. And with the proliferation of cell phones, telephone harassment – again, primarily among teens – is also increasing.

HOW IS CYBERSTALKING DEFINED?

Cyberstalking is abusive electronic contact with a victim. It includes texting (but not telephone conversations), email, and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. When a bully calls on the phone to intimidate a target, the specific charge is telephone harassment. Either type of bullying usually includes lewd suggestions or threats to harm the victim or victim’s family.

In this state, cyberstalking and telephone harassment are usually charged as gross misdemeanors punishable upon conviction with a fine of up to $5,000 and/or up to a year in jail.

However, both crimes can be charged as Class C felonies – punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and/or up to five years in prison – if the defendant:

– violated a restraining order to commit the crime
– has a previous bullying conviction
– made a threat to kill the victim or someone else

Independently of the criminal justice system, victims of cyberbullying may also sue perpetrators for damages in civil court. Cyberstalking and telephone harassment are both serious crimes with serious ramifications. Anyone who is charged with either crime in or near the greater Seattle area will require help from an experienced Seattle criminal defense attorney.

WHAT IS MALICIOUS HARASSMENT?

Malicious harassment, a Class C felony, is a related crime and usually refers to hate crimes. Malicious harassment happens when a threat is made against a particular group or class of people or against an individual perceived to be identified with that group. To convict a defendant of malicious harassment, the law requires that the defendant must have had the apparent ability to make good on the threat.

Stalking, usually a gross misdemeanor, will be charged as a Class B felony in some cases – for example, if the defendant has a prior bullying conviction. Cyberstalking may be charged as stalking if the defendant allegedly commits two or more cyberstalking acts that may reasonably be interpreted as meant to frighten, intimidate, or harass the victim. Penalties for a Class B felony conviction include a fine of up to $20,000 and/or up to ten years in state prison.

IS THERE A WAY TO DEFEND AGAINST A CYBERBULLYING CHARGE?

If you are charged with any of these crimes, how can you defend against the charges? Freedom of speech is a defense sometimes offered against some cyberbullying charges. Where the legal line falls that separates legal speech from bullying is not always clear, so that in some cases, criminal defense attorneys have successfully argued that alleged cyberbullying was actually speech protected under the U.S. Constitution.

In some cases, a defendant may insist that the victim simply overreacted. Sometimes what’s thought to be cyberbullying was merely a misunderstood joke or prank. In other cases, it’s possible that no cyberbullying happened at all and that the charge is entirely a fabrication. In any of these events, if you are the person facing a criminal prosecution for cyberbullying or malicious harassment, seek legal help.

Cyberbullying and cyberstalking are relatively new crimes, and the laws dealing with these crimes are still being crafted, drafted, and revised. The New York Court of Appeals, for example, recently struck down one New York county’s cyberbullying law, saying it violated the right to freedom of speech. If you are charged with cyberbullying, you need an attorney who stays up-to-date and who routinely handles cases involving computer crimes.

HOW CAN A DEFENSE LAWYER HELP?

If you are charged in the greater Seattle area with any crime linked to bullying, exercise your right to remain silent, politely insist on your right to have your lawyer present during any questioning, and then reach out promptly to an experienced Seattle criminal defense attorney. Don’t try explaining to the police. Simply tell them that you prefer to let your lawyer do the talking for you.

Finally, parents should also know that each school district in the state of Washington is required by law to enforce an anti-bullying policy designed to protect students as well as the learning environment itself. These policies must outline reporting procedures for bullying, and a copy of the policy must be available to administrators, teachers, students, and parents. In any school in this state, incidents of bullying must be promptly reported.