BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – ‘Bullying’ is typically defined as an attempt to harm, intimidate, or coerce someone perceived as vulnerable.

Some experts say Louisiana’s schools have a major problem when it comes to this form of aggressive behavior.

For example, an article from The Heartland Institute states that, “An October 2021 report from WalletHub ranks Louisiana as having the sixth-biggest bullying problem of any state in the country.”

But as online platforms become an ever-increasing presence in our daily lives, issues with bullying continue to extend beyond school campuses and creep into a variety of social media outlets.

This can lead some to wonder about the legal ramifications of online behavior. Questions such as, ‘is it illegal to say negative things about a person on social media?’ or ‘is cyberbullying against the law?’ can come up.

While BRProud does not offer legal advice, research that touches on the possible answers to the questions mentioned above are found below.

What legal action can be taken against me if I say negative things about a person online?

Generally, it’s never a good idea to use social media as a platform to call people out by name and say negative things about them.

While it isn’t likely that saying something unpleasant about someone online will lead to jail time, there are situations where legal action can be taken against users who post negative comments.

This is where terms such as ‘defamation of character’ and ‘libel’ come into play.

Many legal experts agree that ‘defamation of character’ is any statement that hurts someone’s reputation. This statement can be spoken, which is called ‘slander,’ or it can be written, which is called ‘libel.’

Most states do not view defamation of character as a crime, meaning it will not send a person to jail.

That said, defamation of character can be viewed as a civil wrong, which means a person can be sued for defamation.

In most cases, the person who wishes to sue for defamation (the ‘plaintiff’) must prove that the other person (the ‘defendant’) posted a false comment about them that damaged their reputation and that they had no legal right to say.

The plaintiff might sue for pain and suffering and highlight how they were emotionally affected by the alleged damage to their reputation.

Sometimes, defendants will counter this by saying they were simply stating their opinion, which should be covered under the First Amendment as a right pertaining to freedom of speech.

It’s true that stating an opinion is not against the law, but an attorney can argue that a negative statement about someone is only an opinion if the statement cannot be proven.

To illustrate, if the defendant posted, “I think Jane Doe is terrible,” this is an opinion because it can’t be proven true or false. The defendant is simply stating how they feel based on a personal perspective.

But, if the defendant posted, “I think Jane Doe stole the Principal’s car,” this can be proven as either true or false, which makes it libel.

The bottom line is that it’s best not to post negative comments about someone online, because it may end up as means for a lawsuit.

Is cyberbullying against the law?

Various states have their own laws when it comes to what is acceptable online behavior and what is considered criminal.

For example, according to Louisiana law, cyberbullying is considered a crime that can result in up to six months of jailtime and a maximum fine of $500.

Along those lines, Stomp Out Bullying states that bullying and cyberbullying can lead to imprisonment when the following factors are involved:

  • Physical assault
  • Harassment
  • Threats of violence
  • Death threats
  • Obscene or harassing phone calls/text messages
  • Unwanted sexting
  • Sexual exploitation
  • Child pornography
  • Stalking
  • Hate crimes
  • Taking a photo of someone in a place where they expect privacy
  • Extortion

As technology continues to advance and more time is spent online, it’s likely that laws pertaining to online behavior will continue to advance.

While navigating the ever-changing terrain of online etiquette, a helpful rule of thumb may be to make sure what we’re saying online is true, doesn’t harm someone else’s reputation, and isn’t posted in anger.