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New Report Released: Few Legal Remedies for Victims of Online Harassment

June 10, 2014

For the last year, I’ve been working with Fordham’s Center on Law and Information Policy to research what legal remedies are available to victims of online harassment. We investigated cyberharassment law, cyberstalking law, defamation law, hate speech, and cyberbullying statutes. We found that although online harassment and hateful speech is a significant problem, there are few legal remedies for victims.

Report Highlights

  • Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act provides internet service providers(including social media sites, blog hosting companies, etc.) with broad immunity from liability for user-generated content.
  • Given limited resources, law enforcement personnel prioritize other cases over
    prosecuting internet-related issues.
  • Similarly, there are often state jurisdictional issues which make successful prosecution
    difficult, as victim and perpetrator are often in different states, if not different countries.
  • Internet speech is protected under the First Amendment. Thus, state laws regarding online
    speech are written to comply with First Amendment protections, requiring fighting
    words, true threats, or obscene speech (which are not protected). This generally means
    that most offensive or obnoxious online comments are protected speech.
  • For an online statement to be defamatory, it must be provably false rather than a matter of
    opinion. This means that the specifics of language used in the case are extremely
    important.
  • While there are state laws for harassment and defamation, few cases have resulted in
    successful prosecution. The most successful legal tactic from a practical standpoint has
    been using a defamation or harassment lawsuit to reveal the identities of anonymous
    perpetrators through a subpoena to ISPs then settling. During the course of our research,
    we were unable to find many published opinions in which perpetrators have faced
    criminal penalties, which suggests that the cases are not prosecuted, they are not appealed
    when they are prosecuted, or that the victim settles out of court with the perpetrator and
    stops pressing charges.
  • In offline contexts, hate speech laws seem to only be applied by courts as penalty
    enhancements; we could locate no online-specific hate speech laws.
  • Given this landscape, the problem of online harassment and hateful speech is unlikely to
    be solved solely by victims using existing laws; law should be utilized in combination
    with other practical solutions.

The objective of the project is to provide a resource that may be used by the general public, and in particular, researchers, legal practitioners, Internet community moderators, and victims of harassment and hateful speech online. If you’re working on online harassment, cyberbullying, revenge porn, or a host of related issues, we hope this will be of service to you.

Also, read it to find out the difference between calling someone a “bitch” and a “skank” online, what a “true threat” is, and why students are probably at the most risk of being prosecuted for online speech acts.

Download the report from SSRN

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