Online Harassment: What You Need to Know

Online harassment has become an unfortunate reality in today's digital age. While the law aims to address this issue, it's essential to understand the complex legal landscape surrounding online abuse. Most states have laws in place that cover various aspects of online harassment, but the interpretation and enforcement of these laws can vary widely. Contact an experienced & affordable attorney!

Understanding State Laws

State laws regarding online harassment typically encompass a range of behaviors, from improper use of devices like hacking and surveillance to harassing actions like cyberstalking and the nonconsensual distribution of intimate images. Many states have amended existing laws related to offline stalking and harassment to include provisions that specifically address electronic forms of communication used for online harassment.

At the state level, individuals can seek legal remedies through both criminal and civil law. In civil cases, victims can file lawsuits against their harassers, seeking monetary damages and other forms of relief. In criminal cases, the state prosecutes the harasser, potentially resulting in fines, probation, or imprisonment.

The Complexity of Applying Laws

The application of these laws can be complex and varies depending on the offense and the state. It's essential to be aware of the types of laws that may apply in your situation rather than detailing the laws of each state. Generally, legal action can be pursued in the state where either the perpetrator or the victim resides. However, jurisdictional issues can be intricate and differ from one state to another. Consulting with a lawyer who specializes in this area of law and practices in the relevant state is advisable before taking any legal action.

Criminal Law: Protecting Victims

Criminal law can provide protection to individuals facing online harassment, especially when the harassment is a response to something they have published or posted online. However, law enforcement agencies have considerable discretion in deciding which cases to investigate and prosecute. Their decisions can be influenced by implicit and explicit biases, making it vital for victims to focus on the harassing behavior itself rather than what may have provoked it.

In criminal cases, the nature of the harassment can affect its prioritization. Cases involving voluminous harassment from a minimal number of harassers are more likely to be pursued, as opposed to diffuse harassment involving fewer communications from multiple individuals. Unfortunately, legal punishment is not guaranteed for abusive or hateful conduct.

Victims experiencing online abuse can file reports with local law enforcement agencies, and in cases of immediate danger, they should contact 9-1-1.

Stalking and Harassment: Cyberstalking vs. Cyber Harassment

Cyberstalking and cyber harassment are related but distinct forms of online abuse:

  • Cyberstalking involves severe forms of online abuse that pose a credible threat of harm to an individual. It refers to the prolonged and repeated use of abusive behaviors online with the intent to harm, intimidate, or surveil the victim.

  • Cyber harassment, on the other hand, encompasses a broader range of abusive tactics and is defined more broadly than cyberstalking. It includes online expression targeted at a specific person that causes substantial emotional distress. In many states, the harassment must be repeated and involve intent to harass, annoy, alarm, or threaten.

While some states lack specific laws differentiating online and offline conduct, standard harassment and stalking laws typically apply broadly to communications, including online interactions.

For cyber harassment or cyberstalking to be considered a criminal offense, it must cause the victim substantial emotional distress, disturbance, or a reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury. The difficulty lies in determining when speech crosses the line into criminal harassment, often requiring that the harasser intended their statements to be perceived as a credible threat.

Doxing: A Complex Legal Landscape

Doxing involves the online publication of sensitive personal information to harass or intimidate the targeted person. Federal and state laws do not explicitly criminalize doxing for the general public. Some states have laws that criminalize doxing individuals in specific professions, such as healthcare workers, judges, or police officers. Prosecutors may rely on existing statutes related to stalking, harassment, identity theft, or computer hacking to pursue doxing cases.

Nonconsensual Intimate Imagery (NCII): Laws and Challenges

Nonconsensual intimate imagery, often referred to as "revenge porn," pertains to the sharing of private, sexually explicit images or videos without the consent of the person featured in them. Nearly all states, except Massachusetts and South Carolina, have laws criminalizing aspects of NCII.

Laws regarding NCII vary, with some requiring the perpetrator to act with the intent to harm the victim, making prosecution more challenging. Civil remedies may also be available for victims of NCII, allowing them to seek monetary compensation, punitive damages, restraining orders, or other injunctive relief. The availability of these remedies varies by state, and consulting with an attorney is recommended to determine the best course of action.

Civil Law: Seeking Relief through the Courts

Even when criminal prosecution is not pursued, victims of online abuse may pursue civil lawsuits against their harassers in civil court. Civil claims, known as "tort claims," seek monetary or injunctive relief from those who have caused harm or injury. Common tort claims include intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and defamation.

While some states provide specific civil claims for NCII, others rely on broader tort claims. Victims can seek compensation for emotional distress, punitive damages to deter further harassment, restraining orders, or other injunctive relief.

Conclusion: A Multifaceted Approach to Combat Online Harassment

Addressing online harassment requires a multifaceted approach that includes legal remedies, technological safeguards, and societal awareness. Understanding the complex legal landscape is the first step in seeking protection and justice for victims of online abuse. Collaboration between legal authorities, technology companies, and advocacy groups is crucial in combating this pervasive issue and creating safer online environments for all individuals.