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Cyber-Bullying: How Behavior in Social Media May be Reshaping Criminal Law

Posted By Steven Brill || 19-Mar-2012

The recent verdict convicting Dharun Ravi - a Rutgers student who had sent out Twitter and text messages encouraging others to watch his roommate, Tyler Clementi, engaged in intimate, sexual activity with another male student - for bias and invasion of privacy crimes at Rutgers University have widespread ramifications in the area of criminal law. Now, law enforcement and prosecutors may be more willing to arrest individuals for cyber-bullying type crimes from the simple act of a Facebook post or a tweet.

Shortly after Mr. Ravi advertised and publicized this intimate event, Mr. Clementi committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. However, Ravi was not charged with causing Mr. Clementi’s death. Instead he was charged with a host of other crimes: four counts of bias intimidation as a hate crime, two counts of invasion of privacy, two counts of attempted invasion of privacy and seven counts of witness tampering and hindering apprehension.

This verdict will no doubt spur new criminal investigations of the aggressive use of social media like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. The use of social media, whether by statements that set out embarrass, criticize or humiliate another may likely bring new attention for law enforcement who could consider these statements a verbal assault – if you will.

Suffice it to say, hurt feelings should not rise to the level of injury that warrants criminal action. But, ponder this: while law enforcement did not charge Mr. Ravi with Mr. Clementi’s murder, one can imagine a case in the near future where one is indeed charged with the tragic result of cyber-bullying. If solicitation to murder or inciting a riot exists as crimes, it is just a matter of time when legislators draw the same logic that words or behavior on social media that lead to similar results (riots or injuring another) could become mainstream charges as well.

Indeed, it is happening now. Just recently, the New York Post reported that an Occupy Wall Street protester tweeted that “we won’t make a difference if we don’t kill a cop or 2.” Needless to say, the NYPD will pay that tweeter a visit. But this new matter re-enforces what we as a generation are experiencing – which is we are all part of a society that shares everything with the public. Some days it almost feels that anything goes. Expressing our opinion to our friends on face book and twitter for a lot of people has become a way of life. Some believe it is Mr. Ravi who is also a victim by being caught up in this new social media way of life. But, the verdict at Rutgers may have made things a bit more clear. Perhaps, everything does not go - especially if your words or behavior on social media sites lead to damaging results.

To our clients at Sullivan & Brill, remember this: from an investigatory perspective, it is not difficult for law enforcement to log on to any public site and observe the comments made and identify the one who made them. If the Rutgers verdict teaches us anything, it is that: one must choose words that you share with the public carefully, for if not, you may find yourself charged with crime with real consequences.