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Cyberstalking is no joke, and neither is being prosecuted for it

In light of the recent, high-profile case in which a teen committed suicide after being bullied at school and online, a number of people have raised the question of whether Florida’s new cyberbullying laws are effective. The new laws, which went into effect on July 1 of this year, expanded the legal definitions of stalking and harassment under Florida law to include behavior that occurs via electronic communications, such as on Facebook.

One of the changes updated Florida statute 1006.147 of the K-20 education code to include cyberbullying. It requires schools to incorporate it into their anti-bullying policies and to respond to it when reported. For the purpose of criminal law, the parallel term “cyberstalking” was added to the definition of criminal stalking. There are two types:

  • Willfully, maliciously and repeatedly cyberstalking a specific person and causing them emotional distress without any legitimate purpose is a first-degree misdemeanor. It is punishable by up to a year of imprisonment and/or a $1,000 fine.
  • Cyberstalking that includes a credible threat against the victim can be charged as a third-degree felony punishable with up to 5 years’ imprisonment and/or a $5,000 fine.

Either charge can be brought against either juveniles or adults.

When it comes to juveniles, however, the potential for criminal charges represents a stark change in how people will be treated by our state. While bullying is certainly very serious and harmful, it hasn’t traditionally resulted in court intervention, and for good reasons. First, young people are still developing their judgment and ability to understand the consequences of their actions. Second, criminal records can irreparably harm a young person’s future, even should he or she be fully rehabilitated and deeply regret wrongdoing they committed as children or teens.

It’s easy to feel sympathy for the victims of childhood bullying. The best use of our sympathy, however, is to find effective ways to prevent and respond to bullying without criminally charging children for hurtful words. And fundamentally, any vitriol delivered online is different by an order of magnitude from in-person confrontations with a bully who cannot be avoided.

When it comes to kids, Florida’s cyberstalking law is already very tough and the penalties are blindly harsh. If you or your child is accused of cyberstalking, time is of the essence. Get an attorney on your side immediately to protect you from the worst consequences.

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