• Can your parents sue if you’re cyberbullied?

    Date: 12.16.10 | by Judge Tom.

    At first you would think “of course they can.”  Just like they can if you were assaulted by someone or if you received negligent medical care. But in cyberspace, where the law is struggling to catch up with technology, there is no clear answer to this or, as they say in law, no recognized actionable tort (civil wrongdoing).

    States have recently started to pass cyberbullying laws. Even the U.S. Congress is considering federal legislation on the subject. Most laws require schools to implement bullying prevention programs. If the bullying constitutes a crime, such as an actual threat of harm to someone, criminal charges may be filed. Otherwise, the school may discipline the student with suspension or expulsion.

    J_O_I_D (Flickr)

    Parents may decide to file a civil lawsuit against the cyberbully and his or her parents. There is no guarantee that this will be successful because of state laws, the issue of intent and the free speech rights of the offender. Americans value the First Amendment so much that burning the U.S. flag, for example, is protected speech. Cyberspeech, until more clearly defined or unless it constitutes a criminal act, remains in flux.

    Civil lawsuits, including cyberbullying lawsuits, may be based on a number of legal theories: physical or mental harm to the victim (Justin Swidler); defamation of character; actual threats that are not protected by the First Amendment; invasion of privacy (Tyler Clementi); or the intentional infliction of emotional distress. Your parents may also file a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the cyberbully. This is a court order issued to stop the bully from further harassment.

    This is a developing area of the law and should be reviewed with a lawyer before taking any legal action. Sometimes a letter from a lawyer to the bully’s parents is enough to put an end to the bullying. The threat of a lawsuit gets the attention of most people.

    If you are being bullied online or through text messages, save all messages or comments. Block the sender from further contact and notify the service provider (Facebook, YouTube, cell phone service, etc.). Do not respond or retaliate. Tell your parents or another adult immediately about the bullying. If it doesn’t stop, notify the police. They will determine whether a crime has been committed.

    As one recent cyberbullying victim stated “Don’t fight with the bully. Fight for yourself.”  See Ally Pfeiffer’s story here.

    Take a look at these websites for additional online safety tips:

    www.thatsnotcool.com

    www.wiredsafety.org

    www.netsmartz.org

    Update:  In April, 2012, 14-year-old Alex Boston had enough with her bullies and the lack of response from the police and school administrators. The Georgia middle school student had reported the ongoing harassment to the school who said they couldn’t do anything because the bullying happened off-campus. The police told her there weren’t any laws in Georgia to cover what was happening. Her parents attempted to contact Facebook to have the page taken down, but got no response until they filed a lawsuit in April, 2012 against two of her bullies. A fake Facebook page was created with Alex’s picture photo-shopped to appear bloated. The page also contained obscene comments, sexual and racial content and accusations that she used marijuana and spoke in “retardish.” After one year and no results from anyone in authority, Alex and her parents filed a libel lawsuit against the bullies and their parents. Alex is asking for unspecified damages and a jury trial. She and her parents are also encouraging lawmakers in Georgia to strengthen the state’s laws on bullying. Alex commented that “I just don’t want it to happen to anybody else cause it feels bad.”

    Judge Tom

    This post was written by Judge Tom. Judge Tom is the founder and moderator of AsktheJudge.info. He is a retired juvenile judge and spent 23 years on the bench. He has written several books for lawyers and judges as well as teens and parents including the recently published 'Teen Cyberbullying Investigated' (Free Spirit Publishing). When he's not answering teens' questions, Judge Tom can be found hiking, traveling and reading.

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