Cyberbullying is a serious offense that is only growing more prevalent with the widespread use of technology and online social media platforms. In today’s blog, we discuss Michigan’s laws addressing cyberbullying, penalties upon conviction, and possible defenses against a charge.
Michigan’s Cyberbullying Laws
Cyberbullying is criminalized through Michigan’s general stalking and cyberstalking statutes, as well as through state-mandated anti-bullying policies in schools, depending on the circumstance of the offense.
Stalking occurs when an individual engages in two or more acts that would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress or cause fright, intimidation, or a feeling of threat in them. Acts of bullying may be prosecuted as stalking when the defendant repeatedly contacts the victim in person, on the phone, or through other electronic media, such as text or social media.
Aggravated stalking is an intensified version of stalking and involves at least one credible threat to physically injure or kill the victim. This can include other specific acts, such as committing the crime in violation of a restraining order. Note that a “credible” threat means that the threat was believable and refers to a threat that was made in a context that would lead a reasonable person to believe the defendant could really carry out the threat.
Posting electronic messages is considered “cyberstalking,” which involves posting a message without the alleged victim’s consent through any form of communication. To be convicted of this crime, the defendant must have had reason to know that posting the message could cause two or more acts of unconsented contact with the alleged victim, and they must have posted the message intending to harass, scare, or threaten the victim.
State-Mandated School Antibullying Laws
In 2011, Michigan legislators enacted a law requiring all state school boards to adopt an antibullying policy. Each policy includes:
- a ban on bullying by or against students and retaliation against victims, witnesses, or other people who report acts of bullying;
- the identification of school officials responsible for ensuring that the policy is implemented; and
- procedures for reporting, investigating, documenting, and addressing acts of bullying.
Penalties for Cyberbullying Charges
Anyone guilty of cyberbullying may face criminal penalties. Stalking is usually considered a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to 1 year in jail. However, if the alleged victim is younger than 18 years old and the defendant is 5 or more years older than the victim, the offense is a felony that carries up to $10,000 in fines and/or up to 5 years in prison. The judge may also place a person convicted of stalking on probation for up to 5 years, including an order to refrain from contacting the other party during that time.
Aggravated stalking is charged as a felony punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and/or up to 5 years in jail. Similar to penalties for stalking crimes, if the victim is younger than 18 years old and the defendant is 5 or more years older than the victim, penalties increase to a fine of up to $15,000 and/or up to 10 years in prison. The judge will also place a person convicted of aggravated stalking on probation for 5-10 years and will include an order to refrain from contacting the alleged victim during that time.
A person guilty of posting electronic messages without consent faces felony penalties including a fine of up to $5,000 and/or up to 2 years in prison. The penalties increase to $10,000 in fines and/or 5 years in prison in the following situations:
- when the crime is in violation of a restraining order;
- when it involves a credible threat to harm or kill the victim (or a member of the victim’s family); and
- other similar specified circumstances.
Defenses Against a Charge
Several defenses may apply if you have been charged with cyberbullying in Michigan, and a good lawyer can help you determine the best defense option for your circumstance.
One way to fight a cyberbullying charge is to argue your right to free speech under the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This is a limited right, however, as speech that would pose a serious imminent threat to people or property may be legally limited. When it comes to cyberbullying, a person is not justified in threatening or engaging in abusive speech that poses an imminent threat to someone else.
On the other hand, nonviolent or other nonthreatening speech (such as expressing political views) are often constitutionally protected. Examples include participating in a lawful protest or assembly, even if the views expressed are unpopular. As a result, depending on your case, it may be worth pursuing a defense based on your right to free speech, especially if you feel your words or actions were ambiguous enough not to put a reasonable person in fear of harm.
To defend against a cyberbullying charge, you can also claim that your behavior was not really threatening in nature. A stalking offense requires that the defendant’s actions put a reasonable person in fear or to feel threatened. If the alleged victim was hyper-sensitive to your actions that would not alarm an average reasonable person, you may be acquitted of your cyberbullying charges.
Let an Experienced Attorney Help
If you are facing cyberbullying charges in Michigan, contact an experienced lawyer for legal representation immediately. Our team at White Law PLLC can take a look at your case and determine the best defense strategy to fight your charge. Whether arguing for mitigated charges or an entire dismissal of your case, our firm will do our best to obtain the most favorable results as we can for you.
Contact us at White Law PLLC to schedule a consultation today.