Litigation trends typically start to move legislation at the state and federal level, and this is what’s starting to be seen in terms of legal protection for victims of online harassment.
For many Americans, being subjected to harassment over the internet is a fact of life. Statistics compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics found that children are particularly at risk, with an astonishing 20% of 10-18-year-old children reporting being the victim of cyber-bullying. While this is obviously a trend that needs to be stamped out, those looking to take action face a problem – the right to free speech. The lines are increasingly blurred as to what is the responsibility of the harasser, what is the responsibility of the victim, and what burden falls on both the authorities and the platform within which harassment has taken place.
Where the law protects
An area in which the law absolutely protects children is grooming. Grooming is the process in which children are manipulated by online abusers for non-contact and contact sexual abuse by befriending and influencing a child. This can have long-lasting impacts on a child’s life as a result. As Cornell Law outlines, the US code does explicitly outlaw this practice – however, the process of grooming before any action takes place is a less clear area, legally speaking. Only two states, Illinois and Arkansas, have specific statutes aimed at prosecuting abusers for actions taken in the process of grooming. As a result, taking action on these issues can be a legally dubious area, and as a result, a look into civil law is required.
Bullying and taking action
There is precedent in anti-bullying, harassment and grooming litigation from as early as 2012. Wired.com reported that a Georgia teenager had sued those that had bullied her, as well as Facebook, stating that they had done nothing to protect her and her family even when complaints had been raised. Since then, multiple lawsuits from parties across the country have been taken to try to curb the problem. Litigation trends typically start to move legislation at the state and federal level, and this is what’s starting to be seen in terms of legal protection for victims of online harassment.
Interpretations in law
According to CyberBullying.org, increasing numbers of cases are being heard in courts that concern statutes in other states. They raise Wisconsin law, which cites the use of computerized systems to intimidate other people as a misdemeanor. While there is no federal legislation to explicitly prohibit most levels of bullying, this is encouraging as a sign that states are not accepting of abuse at any level. That extends to computerized systems, and could well in the future include responsibility being placed at the door of the social media platforms and operators that enable communication that can, at times, become abusive.
Free speech is, of course, crucial, and it is core to the democratic ideals of the country. However, there must be limits to this. States are increasingly recognizing this distinction, and are taking action to ensure that this can be addressed with litigation, civil lawsuits, and even misdemeanor crimes. This should improve the situation for the children being targeted for online harassment across the country.