Update On Cyberbullying Laws

Cyberbullying in schools is one of the most troubling activities currently plaguing our educational system.  When children are bullied, they can’t focus, they don’t feel that they fit in, and they often lose interest in school.  This creates absenteeism, depression, and even suicide among school-age children and teenagers in our society.

According to the California Attorney General: “Anyone who sends any online communication to deliberately frighten, embarrass, harass, or otherwise target another is a cyber bully.”  California Penal Code section 652.3 is slightly more specific, and states that every person who, with the intent to place another person in reasonable fear for their safety of the safety of their immediate family, by means of an electronic communication device, for the purpose of harassing, is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in a county jail, by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or both.  Penal Code § 652.3 also makes it a crime to electronically distribute or make available personal identifying information, including a digital image of another person, or an electronic message of a harassing nature about another person, which would be likely to incite or produce unlawful action.

California law defines harassment as: A knowing and willful course of conduct that a reasonable person would consider as seriously alarming, seriously annoying, seriously tormenting, or seriously terrorizing and that serves no legitimate purpose (Penal Code § 652.3).  Electronic act as related to cyberbullying means: The transmission of a communication, including a message, text, sound, or image, or a post on a social network, by means of an electronic device.  This means that any post through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, or email qualifies as an electronic act, and thus subjects the sender to potential liability for cyberbullying.

While traditional bullying is easier to see and therefore for teachers to try and control and prevent, cyberbullying is less obvious.  Although it may not be readily recognizable in the classroom, AB 746 notes that cyberbullying causes a substantial disruption and detrimental effect on students.  The legislature states that “All pupils enrolled in the state public schools have the inalienable right to attend classes on school campuses that are safe, secure, and peaceful.”  For this reason, California has enacted some of the most student-friendly anti-cyberbullying laws in the country.

According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, California’s cyberbullying laws are among the foremost in the nation.  Punishment for cyberbullying can include both criminal sanctions and school sanctions. This means that cyber bullies can be held criminally liable for their actions, as well as facing discipline from the school (likely suspension or expulsion) (Cal. Educ. Code § 48900).  Not all states allow for criminal sanctions.  California law also requires public schools to have a formal policy addressing cyber bullying (Cal. Educ. Code § 66302).  These policies must be made available to the public and explain how the school identifies and addresses bully behavior.  Finally, California law includes off-campus behavior by bullies in the definition of actions that can qualify as cyberbullying as defined in Penal Code § 652.3.  According to cyberbullying.org, federal law allows schools to discipline students for off-campus behavior that results in a substantial disruption of the learning environment at school.  While many states have chosen not to enact legislation creating liability for off-campus behavior, California is one of 16 states that has enacted such legislation to punish cyberbullies.

According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics, 21% of students who are 12-18 years old, experience bullying at some point.   A second study indicates that an estimated 16% of high school students have been bullied electronically in the past 12 months.  Cyberbullying can take many forms, including, posting comments or rumors about someone that are mean, hurtful, embarrassing, or false; threatening to hurt someone or telling them to hurt or kill themselves; posting a mean or harmful picture or video; pretending to be someone else or impersonating another person online to post personal or false information; creating a mean or hurtful website about someone; or making an individual’s personal information (phone number, address, credit card, social media accounts) available to the public.

Cyberbullying is a serious problem many people are dealing with today.  With the increasing use of electronics in schools, traditional methods of bullying, such as physical and verbal acts, have transferred into the online world.  Electronics make it easier than ever to say false, hurtful, or negative things to others, especially in an educational environment where students interact with one another on a regular basis.  Cyberbullying can increase the risk for suicide-related behaviors, among other risk factors.  Cyberbullying is a serious issue, and also a crime in California.

At our law firm, we assist clients with legal issues related to cyberbullying, cyberharassment, cyberstalking, and invasion of privacy issues.  Please contact us to set up an initial consultation.