Scared, lonely, helpless. These are some of the feelings that cyberbullies try to create in their victims. Whether it’s Facebook bullying, Instagram bullying, trolling or other social media harassment, the emotional impact of cyberbullying can be severe. For many cyberbullying victims, the questions that they never seem to get a good answer to are: what can I do about this? How can I make it stop? What are my rights?
In California there are criminal laws that a cyberbully could be violating, depending on the circumstances. Sanctions for violating criminal laws could include imprisonment or fines. However, enforcing criminal laws against cyberbullies has proved to be far from easy. Police do not always take these matters seriously. Even if they do, prosecutions against cyberbullies are challenging because the bully is sometimes able to assert free speech rights as a defence.
Whether or not criminal laws have been violated, the other question you want to know is: can you sue the bully? And the answer is: maybe. This is important for 2 reasons:
1. if you have viable lawsuits that can be filed against the bully, and the bully is made aware of these legal claims, it is more likely that he will stop the cyberbullying or harassment; and
2. in California, you may be entitled to sue for damages (money) as compensation for the social media harassment or other inappropriate behavior that you have endured.
So what might you be able to sue for? Two of the main causes of action are likely to be: defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Defamation: this is generally defined as a publication of a false statement that holds a person up to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or causes a person to be shunned. Facebook bullying, Instagram bullying and other social media harassment would likely amount to “libel”, which is a written form of defamation. Libel is defined by California law as “a false and unprivileged publication by words…which expose any person to hatred, contempt, ridicule or obloquy, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or has a tendency to injure him in his occupation.” Anyone publishing or republishing the statement, whether on Facebook, Instagram or otherwise, could be sued for libel in California.
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress: someone who by extreme and outrageous conduct intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional harm to someone can be sued for that harm. If the emotional harm also causes you physical harm, you can also sue for the physical harm. Notice here that the social media harassment would need to be “extreme and outrageous” to be able sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress. A negative comment about your clothes, for example, would, on its own, probably not be deemed to be extreme and outrageous. However, if such comments were part of a wider pattern of Facebook harassment, Instagram harassment or other online harassment, then such behavior could be found to be extreme and outrageous. Each case is different and needs to be assessed on the particular facts.
Next time you feel alone and helpless because you or your child is being bullied online and is the victim of social media harassment, remember that you do have legal options. You may be able to sue the bully, his parents, or even your child’s school. If you have not been able to get the bullying to stop on your own, consider getting a lawyer to write a letter to the bully or his parents asserting your legal rights and demanding that the bullying stop immediately. Having a lawyer write the letter will increase the chances of your demands being taken seriously. You don’t need to fight alone.