There are various reasons you might decide to contact a lawyer when experiencing online harassment.
Episodes of cyberstalking, nonconsensual pornography, defamation, true threats of violence, and severe cases of cyber harassment involving a “course of conduct” (i.e. ongoing behaviors from the same perpetrator) can merit a lawyer’s involvement, along with a number of other harassing behaviors that might cause you substantial emotional distress.
There are, however, many kinds of online harassment that a lawyer can’t necessarily help you with. While many forms of online harassment are exhausting, emotionally taxing, and even traumatic for the target (not to mention ethically reprehensible), they may not be illegal. For example, a person who is calling you offensive or hateful names on social media, or engaging in ad hominem attacks against you, is likely engaging in a form of speech protected by the First Amendment—in which case, a lawyer is not likely to get involved. (This is where blocking and muting can come in handy, along with deploying members of your support community to denounce hate and engage in acts of counterspeech.) Even threats of violence, which aren’t always protected by the First Amendment, can present a gray area online: the legal definition of a “true threat” is narrow and can be challenging to apply in an online context, where discerning a speaker’s intent (or disproving their claims that they did not intend the message to be threatening) can be difficult.
There is a lot to consider on this topic, and laws can vary from state to state, which is why nothing can replace a lawyer’s professional advice on your individual case. If you have access to a lawyer, don’t hesitate to reach out to them for information.
If you’re an emerging writer, a freelancer, or someone just struggling to stay afloat financially, you might not have access to expert legal advice. This shouldn’t prevent you from receiving it. Free lawyer referrals are offered by many local bar associations, which you can browse via the American Bar Association’s main website. Below is a list of organizations that offer legal advice and/or services, in some cases pro bono.
Authors Guild members have access to a range of resources, including The Writer’s Legal Guide, which offers information about libel, privacy, and the limits of free expression, among a bevy of copyright and publishing issues. Certain Authors Guild membership levels also give members access to experienced lawyers. You must be a member of the Author’s Guild to have access to these services. Dues range from $35–125.
CCRI is a nonprofit organization fighting online abuse and advocating for social and legal innovation to bring about change. They’re known for their work advocating for victims of nonconsensual pornography in particular. CCRI’s attorneys web page lists pro bono legal projects and state-by-state contact information for lawyers offering pro bono consultation in cases of “revenge porn.”
The NCVBA provides legal referrals to targets of cyberstalking and online harassment. You can learn more at their website.
The RCFP provides pro bono legal representation and other legal resources to protect First Amendment freedoms and the news-gathering rights of journalists. Their Legal Defense and Freedom of Information Act Hotline, manned by RCFP attorneys, is available to working journalists 24/7.
VLAA is a consortium of organizations providing free and low-cost legal services to arts-related institutions and artists in 28 states. For writers living in New York, the New York Chapter of Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts offers legal services to the literary arts community. You can access their intake form for in-house consultations and pro bono placements here.
While PEN America doesn’t offer legal advice to writers, if the resources listed above aren’t giving you the contacts or information you need, we can offer referrals on a case-by-case basis. Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.