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The term cyberbullying has become part of most Americans' vocabulary, after surfacing in high schools and universities nationwide. In the past few months, a rash of teen suicides resulting from bullying, cyber and otherwise, has renewed the concern by teens, parents and lawmakers about cyberbullying and how to prevent it from harming or taking the lives of our kids. Even President Obama got involved with the YouTube campaign "It Gets Better Project," aimed at helping LGBT teens deal with bullying.
If your child is cyberbullied, what can you do? Many online sources have excellent recommendations for practical assistance a parent can offer a child. Good suggestions include switching phone numbers and social media accounts, adding new privacy protections on Facebook or MySpace, providing counseling if needed and even switching schools if necessary.
But if parents want a legal option, what can they do?
Many states have enacted anti-cyberbullying laws. A prior post on FindLaw's Law and Daily Life runs down the various laws many of the states have enacted. Many are focused on the school environment. The laws generally increased the responsibilities of school officials to take action when bullying is reported. Bullying and cyberbullying laws often require schools to develop anti-bullying programs and some even include penalties for a failure to act by school officials once physical or cyberbullying is reported.
Parents seeking to file civil suits for cyberbullying may still have an uphill battle, however. After an initial look at various state laws, suing for civil penalties such as an injunction (to legally limit contact) or damages that may relate to physical or mental harm suffered, may depend on many factors.
Take the California court that found last March that a suit against cyberbullies could proceed because the bully's online statements contained "actual threats" which are not protected speech under the First Amendment.
But in New York this past July, a suit by the victim of cyberbullies did not fare as well. Online Media Daily reports the victim was harassed online by bullies claiming she had sex with animals, prostitutes and "morphed into the devil." Judge Randy Sue Marber did not find that these words were defamatory under New York law. Defamation law usually requires the defamatory statement to be an allegation of fact. The judge found that while the bullies' posts displayed an "utter lack of taste and propriety, they do not constitute statements of fact." It seems unlikely the judge grasped the faith some teens put into even the most outlandish "facts." Regardless, the judge's statement of law will stand unless overturned by a higher court. According to the judge, in New York, there is no "case precedent which recognized cyberbullying as a cognizable tort action."
If a suit for defamation doesn't work, parents might consider claims for invasion of privacy or intentional infliction of emotional distress against a cyberbully. However, it is a developing area of the law, so a discussion with a lawyer would be the best way to proceed.
If your child is being bullied, one of the most important things you can do is remind them they are not alone, and neither are you. Take advantage of the many online resources to research the law, to find help and to get support.