Wesley Jampel, a student in Jon Pfeiffer’s Spring 2014 Mass Communication Law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the following essay in response to the prompt: “You recently accepted a friend request from someone you went to elementary school with, but you haven’t seen since. Over the past month this person has liked and commented on everything in your profile. She sends you daily messages and won’t leave you alone. She even started posting pictures of you on her personal Facebook page. What can you do? What should you be able to do? What should you be able to do?”
With the rapid spread of social networking sites and other Internet communication forums, there has been a tremendous increase in cyber stalking worldwide. Findin g a legal solution to this problem is often difficult due to the loose interpretation of cyber stalking and cyber bullying. The fact that cyber stalking and cyber bullying encompasses such a wide range of behavior can complicate the effort to find a legal remedy. When dealing with this issue, it is important to note that laws and regulations surrounding cyber bullying are state-specific.
In this particular case, the Facebook stalker has liked and commented on everything on my entire profile, sent me daily messages, posted pictures of me on her own profile, and refuses to leave me alone. First off, in order for someone to like or comment on your profile, they must be friends with you. In this case, I would delete my stalker as a friend to prevent unwanted likes and posts. My second course of action would be to make my profile private so that my stalker could no longer gain access to my photos, and thus would not be able to post them to his/her own profile. These are the preventative steps I would take when looking for a solution to this matter.
Cyber bullying usually refers to a situation where a person deliberately threatens, harasses or intimidates another. It can also include cyber stalking, sending sexually offensive messages to the victim, monitoring the victim’s online activities, or sharing private or intimate information about the victim with others. In this case, my Facebook stalker undoubtedly falls into this category. When looking at this scenario from a legal standpoint, the vital question an attorney must ask is whether the behavior fits into a recognized cause of action. No matter how much suffering a cyber bully has caused someone, in order for an attorney to “do something about it,” the attorney must carefully weigh the validity of the claim. This analysis can be broken down into three questions: Did the behavior violate a criminal statute? Did the behavior involve a student? Did the behavior constitute a traditional civil tort?
To answer the question regarding the violation of a criminal statute, one must look at their state harassment laws. Many states have amended their harassment statutes to include online harassment, but even if the victim’s state has not, there is still the possibility that the stalker’s conduct falls within the traditional definition of harassment. If I chose to pursue legal action, I would hire an attorney to research state harassment laws and see if they apply to my case. In the case they did, I would file for a restraining order.
If my Facebook stalker was a student, I would take a different course of action before searching for a legal remedy. As a student, it is important to recognize that almost every state in the country has passed some sort of student cyber bullying law. Schools are responsible for ensuring their students are free from enduring harassment pursuant to local civil rights statutes and even state constitutions. If the person harassing me was a fellow student, I would take my matter up with my university.
When addressing if my stalker’s behavior constituted a civil tort, I would look at my case of cyber bullying and try to tie it to harassment, defamation or intentional infliction of emotional distress. If my stalker caused me emotional distress to an extreme degree, and went beyond boundaries of decency, I would file a civil harassment suit. When analyzing which route to take when dealing with my stalker, I will explore a wide range of possible approaches, including the criminal, statutory and common law tort laws.
Wesley Jampel is a student at Pepperdine University majoring in advertising.
Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. COM 570 covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.