Leslie Jones: Laws Against Cyber-bullying and Hate Speech

Leslie Jones, co-star of the new Ghostbusters movie, was on the receiving end of deplorable, horrific, and downright racist cyber-bullying on Twitter yesterday. Some of the things these creeps were sending her was absolutely shameful. This, while awful, was probably the lightest version of the hate she received:

The tweet from Yellow Armed Imposter has been deleted, which just shows how cowardly these people really are. Many online users opine that Twitter has not done enough to combat abuse of this nature, and anyone who has gotten hatred like this online knows how scary it can be; yes, most of these people are random and don’t know the person whom they’re trolling, but that doesn’t change the fact that attacks like this are wrong.

In the last five years, states have enacted laws specifically against cyber-bullying, while politicians and parents alike implore upon schools to become more active in eradicating this behavior. So what do states define as cyber-bullying, and what penalties could a person face for committing such acts?

what is cyber-bullying?

It’s defined as “bullying that takes place using electronic technology,” and in recent months we’ve seen examples of such things in all social media outlets, but Twitter users seem to be the common culprit. It’s a problem on all online platforms because people can avoid human contact and make insults of the worst kind from afar. It’s a medium of speech that, when held up to the timeline of the existence of the U.S. and online communication in general, is a fairly new concept. This is why many laws have been written and the terms of use for social media sites have been carefully crafted to absolve themselves of liability.

Twitter’s terms of use and help page are lengthy, and they have a specific page for how a user should deal with abuse. These steps are unique to their site, as the form of communication on Twitter is very different compared to Facebook or Instagram.

  • First, unfollow someone with whom you disagree. “We’ve all seen something on the Internet we disagree with or have received unwanted communication.”
  • If the abuse continues, block that user. “Blocking will prevent that person from following you or seeing your profile picture on their profile page or in their timeline,” and if they do @ you or mention your name, it won’t show up on your timeline.
  • It’s recommended you take screenshots of any abuse, especially if you feel your personal safety might be in danger. As we all know, tweets can be deleted, and even though it is possible to recover them, taking a screenshot will help you build a case against the abuser if it becomes necessary to do so.
  • They also suggest reaching out to people whom you trust for guidance, and that if you know someone who is being abused on their site, to offer comfort in some form.

One “tip” they also offer is to simply ignore the abuse. “Abusive users often lose interest once they realize that you will not respond.” However, it is not that easy. In her case, Leslie Jones was right to be filled with rage at the hate being directed towards her. Anyone would if they had to deal with that. Trolls with nothing better to do won’t stop. They create fake handles, fake e-mails, contact you on other social media forms and anything else they can think to do. When this happens, it’s important to know what type of legal action you can take.

What does the law say about cyber-bullying?

When it comes to the First Amendment, there are few exceptions concerning free speech. Libel and slander – print and spoken defamation of one’s character, respectively – is against the law, but hate speech, much the same as flag burning, is upheld by the Constitution as freedom of speech. However, attacks against someone personally based on their race, religion or sexual identity is illegal, and indeed every state has a law in some form or another against cyber-bullying and hate speech online. Each state’s language varies greatly, though.

Take for example Alabama and Colorado. Alabama’s law, although it says “electronic” it does not use nor define the term “cyber-bullying,” and leaves much of the policing of this matter up to the schools. Colorado, on the other hand, goes to extensive lengths to leave no wiggle room in the language of the law. A person is committing harassment if they: “DIRECTLY OR INDIRECTLY initiates communication with a 7 person OR DIRECTS LANGUAGE TOWARD ANOTHER PERSON, anonymously 8 or otherwise, by telephone, telephone network, data network, text 9 message, instant message, computer, computer network, or computer 10 system, OR OTHER INTERACTIVE ELECTRONIC MEDIUM in a manner 11 intended to harass or threaten bodily injury or property damage, or makes 12 any comment, request, suggestion, or proposal by telephone, computer, 13 computer network, or computer system, OR OTHER INTERACTIVE 14 ELECTRONIC MEDIUM that is obscene.”

You may notice that the term cyber-bullying is not used here either, however suffice to say they have covered all forms of harassment. Colorado also declares potential penalties, stipulating that anyone who does this commits a Class 3 misdemeanor, and faces a $50 fine and up to six months in jail. However, it’s a Class 1 misdemeanor if done based on race, religion, ancestry or national origin – most forms of Twitter abuse revolves around these things – and the perpetrator faces up to 18 months in jail. Penalties vary, but the point is that it’s possible to seek criminal prosecution if you receive abuse online.

Twitter was created with the pretext of communicating with literally anyone; “Twitter is a thrilling place for teens. You can follow celebrities close enough to step on their digital heels.” However, nothing comes without its own set of problems. Statistics show that half of the teenage population has experienced some form of cyber-bullying, while only 1 in 5 instances of this is actually reported. Leslie Jones, given her celebrity status, may very well inspire those who have received similar forms of online abuse to be more vocal and hold those committing these heinous acts accountable.

Header image by Almonroth, from Wiki Commons.

B. Clausen

A graduate of the University of Kansas, Brian Clausen is the U.S. news reporter for Dopplr. Before joining the team, he created digital content for large companies.

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