Cyberstalking, Cyberharassment, and Cyberbullying

As an unfortunate consequence of the Internet’s expansion and usage of social media networks, online users are vulnerable to attacks in the form of cyberstalking, cyberharassment, and cyberbullying. In an effort to restore online safety, the California Legislature has imposed certain laws to provide protection to the victims.

What Remedies are Available in Cyberstalking Cases?

Cyberstalking is a form of online harassment, with the unique requirement of repeated and ongoing behavior. The remedies available to victims of cyberstalking first depend on whether the defendant’s conduct was civil or criminal in nature. Under California Civil Code section 1708.7, civil “cyberstalking” consists of a pattern of behavior that intends to “follow, alarm, or harass” the plaintiff, causing a reasonable fear for safety. A plaintiff may also be able to seek remedies if the reasonable fear for safety was for his or her immediate family members (e.g. parent, child, or spouse). To constitute cyberstalking, the pattern of behavior must take place over electronic equipment, such as telephones, computers, fax machines, or pagers. In these cases, the victims may collect financial damages, including punitive damages (e.g. a financial “punishment” to deter similar behavior in the future). Additionally, a victim of cyberstalking may ask the court to issue an injunction or temporary restraining order, which includes a court order preventing the defendant from contacting the victim in the future.

Criminal cyberstalking, as defined in California Penal Code section 646.9, requires a willful or malicious intent. This is a higher burden because it requires introducing evidence regarding the defendant’s intent to threaten or harass the victim. A defendant who is found guilty of criminal cyberstalking faces imprisonment for up to 1 year, a fine of up to $1,000, or both. In addition, the sentencing court may issue a restraining order, effective for up to ten years, which prohibits the defendant from making any contact with the victim. If a defendant is found guilty of acts of cyberstalking when there was a valid temporary restraining order or injunction in place, the defendant can face anywhere from 2-4 years in prison.

What Remedies are Available in Cyberharassment Cases?

Cyberharassment is different from cyberstalking in that it does not require a pattern of repeated behavior. A single instance of online harassment can be enough. Additionally, in California, cyberharassment is always a criminal offense. California Penal Code section 422 defines “cyberharassment” as a willful threat to cause death or great bodily injury. To satisfy the requirements of this section, the defendant must take specific, intentional steps to threaten the victim, even if he or she does not ultimately carry out the threatened action. Punishment for this sort of online harassment includes up to 1 year in jail. Under Penal Code section 653.2, cyberharassment can also take the form of the electronic distribution or publication (e.g. sending out mass emails and providing hyperlinks for downloads) of personal identification information, such as the victim’s pictures. The sentence for this type of cyberharassment includes up to a year in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both. Cyberharassment may also take the form of repeated, harassing telephone calls. However, marketing calls do not meet the standard of cyberharassment because they are made in good faith.

What Remedies are Available in Cyberbullying Cases?

In general, if a person intentionally submits a communication to frighten, embarrass, harass or target another person is a cyber bully. In general, the culprit can use any form of electronic communication (e.g., instant messenger, e-mail, websites, diary sites, interactive games, and mobile phones) to assault the victim. In often times, the culprit is familiar with his or her victim. The attacks towards the victim are either direct, indirect or invade the victim’s privacy. The victim may be able to avoid cyberbullying by using complicated passwords for online accounts and avoiding heated online or offline interactions.

In many cases, bullying causes a substantial disruption and detrimental effect on students. So, it usually occurs in schools, either on campus or off campus. For that purpose, many states, including, but not limited to, California have passed laws to prevent cyberbullying. For example, AB 256, clarifies the school’s role in intervening in bullying cases that originate away from school. AB 9, which is called “Seth’s Law,” requires school policy and investigation processes. In addition, AB 746, includes language about student behaviors on social networking websites.

Finally, there may be a viable cause of action for emotional distress. There are certain guidelines for bring such a claim to court, so it is imperative for prospective clients to speak with an attorney about this matter.

At the Law Offices of Salar Atrizadeh, we provide clients with the guidance and legal expertise to enforce their legal rights. You may contact us to set up a free and confidential consultation.