Important: This information is offered for educational purposes only. It is not legal advice, and it is not intended to replace the assistance of a lawyer.
Choosing whether or not to involve law enforcement in more severe episodes of online harassment can be a difficult decision. Because so many social media platforms offer anonymity, and because disgruntled users can so easily issue threats that they may have no intention of acting on, it’s a challenge to assess whether or not an online threat is real.
Unfortunately, there is no exact formula for knowing when to turn to the police: You are the best person to judge whether or not your safety, or the safety of your loved ones, has been compromised. Because certain communities and individuals may have different relationships with the police depending on their experiences and backgrounds, not everyone will feel comfortable involving law enforcement. And as discussed below, law enforcement officials are not always well-equipped to handle problems that arise online. Again, we encourage you to use your own judgment.
In general, the police are more likely to be able to help in some way with the following forms of online harassment:
- You’ve received or been named in direct threats of violence (general note: threats that suggest a time, place, or location are more likely to be taken seriously by law enforcement.)
- An online abuser has published nonconsensual, sexually-explicit images of you.
- You’ve been stalked via electronic communication (see below.)
- You know your online harasser and wish to seek a restraining order.
These are by no means the only reasons you might wish to turn to law enforcement for help. Even if reporting online harassment to your local precinct doesn’t result in immediate action, at the very least, it will establish a paper trail that might be needed later on.
If you feel that you are in immediate danger, however, please consider calling 911.
When to Turn to a Lawyer
The laws governing online harassment can vary widely from state to state, which is why no online resource can ever replace the advice of a local lawyer. For freelance writers or writers in an uncertain financial position, it can be difficult to obtain access to expert legal advice. Please see the Legal Resources section of this Field Manual for specific information about the legal and pro bono options available to targets of online harassment.
What to Know Before Involving Law Enforcement
Involving law enforcement in online harassment can be intimidating and overwhelming, especially for writers who have never visited their local precinct or filed a police report. It can help to have a trusted loved one by your side if you end up going to your precinct in person, or if the police decide to send an officer to your home to take a statement. Whether you go to the police or they come to you, be aware that you may be asked to present documentation of your online harassment and/or to answer a series of interview questions with as much detail as possible.
Filing a police report does not always result in helpful action, unfortunately. There are various reasons for this. Sometimes a hateful online message falls within the realm of protected speech, and the law doesn’t apply. Sometimes a local precinct has not been adequately trained to respond to cyberattacks—an area of policing that continues to evolve. Sometimes the police officer handling your case may be unfamiliar with the online platforms where the harassment occurred. (When journalist Amanda Hess turned to the police to report rape and death threats that she’d received on social media, the on-duty officer had not heard of Twitter.) We do not share this information to disparage members of law enforcement but rather to acknowledge that policing still has a long way to go, and to alert you to certain realities you might encounter when turning to the police for help.
The reality is, when it comes to online harassment, the burden of educating local law enforcement about existing cyber laws often lies with the victim. Depending on where you live, you might want to look up your state’s cyber laws using one of the resources below, and have them in hand when you walk into your local precinct to report online abuse.
There is hope that as online harassment continues to gain recognition as a serious, well-documented phenomenon, law enforcement agencies will catch up.
Relevant Legal Terms and Ideas
Many states have laws that may apply to cases of online abuse and harassment. These laws generally reference “cyber harassment” or “cyberstalking.” In some cases, laws pertaining to offline harassment and stalking have been amended to include online activity. This resource by Fordham Law School offers a primer of the legal landscape when it comes to online harassment.
Cyberstalking and cyber harassment are closely related concepts. “Cyberstalking” generally refers to more severe forms of abuse or harassment online that constitute a credible threat of harm to an individual. “Cyber harassment” (also known as “online harassment”) is generally defined more broadly. According to legal expert Danielle Keats Citron, “Cyber harassment is understood as repeated online expression amounting to a ‘course of conduct’ targeted at a particular person that causes the targeted individual substantial emotional distress.”
It’s important to know, however, that in practice, it may be very difficult for law enforcement officials to investigate a case of possible cyberstalking or cyber harassment, or to successfully prosecute someone for their online behavior. There are many reasons for this: Law enforcement officials are not always familiar with laws pertaining to online abuse or with how online platforms can be used to target an individual. They may also have difficulty identifying the perpetrator, or taking action if the perpetrator does not live in your state. For similar reasons, successfully suing the perpetrator in civil court can be challenging.
Another reason it can be difficult to bring a criminal case against an online abuser is that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the basis for some of the strongest speech protections in the world. Expressions of hate or disparagement toward individuals and groups are not generally punishable by law unless they fall into a category of speech that is not protected by the First Amendment. Unprotected categories include extortion, perjury, defamation, false advertising, true threats (threats that “a reasonable person would interpret as a real and serious communication of an intent to inflict harm”), and fighting words (words “which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace”). The latter two have been defined narrowly in U.S. case law.
Despite the many obstacles that exist when it comes to making a case against an online harasser, there are examples of criminal and civil cases in which targets of cyberstalking and cyber harassment have mounted successful cases against their abusers. Educating yourself about your rights and local laws can help you advocate for yourself in conversations with lawyers and the police.
Most states have laws covering some aspects of cyber abuse, whether related to improper use of devices (illegal hacking and surveillance, for example) or harassing behaviors like cyberstalking and nonconsensual pornography. Many state laws about offline stalking and harassment have been amended to include language addressing the use of electronic forms of communication to perpetrate harassment. How these laws apply to your particular situation can vary widely depending on the state and the offense. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative offers helpful information about laws related to nonconsensual pornography on a state-by-state basis (38 states currently have “revenge porn” laws on the books), while the Cyberbullying Research Center offers this helpful resource with information about each state’s cyberbullying and online-harassment laws. The group Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA) offers a resource tracking cyberstalking laws across the country.
In order for federal law enforcement to become involved in a cybercrime, communication across state lines must be involved (meaning the person harassing or stalking you is in another state). As with state law, some federal laws regarding stalking and harassment have been amended to include language addressing the use of electronic forms of communication. (The federal stalking statute, for example, has been amended to include the use of “any interactive computer service or electronic communication service . . . to engage in a course of conduct that . . . causes, attempts to cause, or would be reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress” to the targeted person or persons.)
It can feel intimidating and even potentially futile to report online harassment to the federal government, which is why reporting online harassment to your local precinct can be a good place to start. At the very least, documenting online harassment at the state level creates a paper trail that may come in handy should you decide to escalate your online harassment to the federal level.
To report internet crimes to the FBI, click here.
Criminal vs. Civil Cases
In a criminal case, the offending action is considered harmful not just to you as an individual but also to society as a whole. A prosecutor works with law enforcement to file the case in court, where they represent the interests of the state, not you directly. If an online abuser is ever brought to criminal court, they’re tried for breaking a specific law. Possible criminal cases related to online harassment include cyberstalking and nonconsensual pornography.
A civil case, on the other hand, seeks to settle disputes between people and institutions. In simple terms, the plaintiff (you) generally brings a lawsuit asking the court to require the defendant (your online abuser) to make compensation for the harm done to you. Possible civil claims related to online harassment include defamation, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In a civil case, you (and your lawyer) are in control of all the major decisions: whether or not to sue, settle, or take a case to trial.
Whether or not you have a viable criminal or civil case can only be determined by consulting law enforcement and/or a lawyer. If you don’t have connections to a lawyer and are seeking legal advice, take a look at the Legal Resources section of this Field Manual.