Are There Online Bullying Laws in Massachusetts?

Bullying has always been a growing concern among students, but the rising prevalence of digital media and technology has opened another arena for dangerous activity between students. Bullying that occurs online can be charged criminally just like any other crime of bullying, but there are a couple ways to fight such a charge. Keep reading today’s blog to learn about what would qualify an offense as criminal cyberbullying in Massachusetts and how to defend against such a charge.

How Might Cyberbullying Be Charged?

Massachusetts legislators address bullying in their general criminal statutes and require all schools to implement antibullying policies. Acts of bullying online (cyberbullying) are also addressed by these statutes, and individuals found guilty of cyberbullying may be charged with several general Massachusetts criminal statutes, depending on the nature of the offense.

Harassment Statute

Harassment applies to instances of bullying and cyberbullying that occur repeatedly (2 or more acts) in person or over electronic media that are:

  • directed at a specific person,
  • seriously alarm that person, and
  • would cause a reasonable person in the alleged victim’s position to feel distressed.

In Massachusetts, harassment can be penalized by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to 2 years and 6 months in jail. For second and subsequent offenses, the judge may elect to impose either up to 2 years and 6 months in jail or up to 10 years in state prison.

Stalking Statute

Stalking usually applies to more serious instances of bullying, as it involves acts of harassment that also include a threat that puts a specific person in fear of imminent injury or death. As with harassment, stalking applies to both in-person and electronic conduct. Penalties for stalking include a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to 2 years and 6 months in jail or up to 5 years in prison.

Note that when the offense occurred in violation of a restraining or other similar civil protective order, the defendant will face 1-5 years in jail or state prison, as well as any applicable monetary fines. Second and subsequent convictions incur 2-10 years in jail or state prison and any further fines imposed by the judge.

Annoying Telephone Calls or Electronic Communication

A person could be charged for annoying telephone calls or electronic communication when they repeatedly contact a person for the purpose of harassing or annoying them or their family. Be aware that this offense includes repeated contact even if no conversation ensued (calling and hanging up), and contact may include words, images, sounds, or other forms of communication. Such an offense is punishable by a fine of up to $500 and/or up to 3 months in jail.

School Policies

According to state law, Massachusetts school boards must have an anti-bullying policy to address both electronic and nonelectronic bullying. The policy must include acts:

  • of any written, verbal, physical, or electronic nature directed at a specific person
  • that cause harm to the person (emotionally or physically) or their property;
  • that create a hostile school environment; or
  • that infringe on the person’s rights at school (including interrupting their educational progress).

Each school policy must also include a statement prohibiting bullying; a procedure for reporting instances of bullying; investigation and documentation procedures for following up and acting on such reports; and consequences and actions to be taken by the school to stop and prevent incidents of bullying.

Defending Against a Charge

Depending on the circumstances of the offense, an individual charged with cyberbullying can pursue a couple different defense methods in court. One common defense a defendant and their lawyer could argue is free speech. A student’s right to free speech is protected under the 1st Amendment, especially when they are expressing their opinion. However, this is not an absolute right; the state may decide to limit free speech when it is considered a serious and imminent threat, and they may prosecute anyone whose speech causes (or threatens to cause) harm.

Recall that in order for a person to be legally charged with cyberbullying, their conduct must be threatening. In other words, harassment and stalking (and even decisions against the free speech argument) require actual and reasonable distress felt by the alleged victim. If the alleged victim is abnormally sensitive to behavior that wouldn’t bother most people in that position, the defendant may be acquitted of the harassment or stalking charges purely on the evidence that no reasonable threat was perceived.

Seek an Experienced Lawyer on Your Case

If you have been charged with cyberbullying in Massachusetts, consult an attorney about your situation to determine how to proceed with your defense. Bullying can be a serious offense under the state’s harassment or stalking statutes, and it could take a toll on your child’s standing in their school.

For more information on how to combat a cyberbullying charge, contact Brad Bailey Law to discuss your case.

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