Compared to other states in the United States, Michiganders experience online harassment and cyberbullying at alarmingly high rates. Online harassment in Michigan is typically addressed through general civil and criminal harassment laws, such as cyberbullying and online stalking laws.
To be charged with cyberbullying in Michigan, a perpetrator must post a message or statement on a public forum that intends to place a victim (the plaintiff) in fear of bodily harm or death. The statement must contain an intent to commit violence against the person. The perpetrator must also post the message with the intent to communicate a threat and with the knowledge it will be viewed as a threat.
To be charged with online stalking, a perpetrator must post a message online that causes two or more unwanted contacts with the victim. The message must be posted with the intent of making a victim feel afraid or harassed. This contact must be of such a nature that it would generally cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress and feel afraid or harassed, and it must also actually make the victim experience emotional distress and feel afraid or harassed.
At Minc Law, our practice is dedicated to internet law and privacy-related issues. We know the ins and outs of navigating online harassment laws in the United States and have extensive experience putting an end to internet threats, attacks, and abuse for good.
In this article, we will cover the following:
- How common cyber harassment is in Michigan,
- The most prevalent types of online abuse in Michigan,
- Criminal cyberbullying and cyber harassment laws in Michigan,
- Civil options for victims of online harassment,
- Potential punishments for people who engage in cybercrimes,
- What to do if you are a victim of online crimes.
Prevalence of Online Harassment Crimes in Michigan
Online harassment is a prevalent and serious problem across the United States and Michigan is no exception.
What Are the Rates of Online Bullying & Harassment in the State of Michigan?
In 2019, Michigan was named the state with the “biggest bullying problem” in the United States.
A recent Statista survey put Michigan as having the fifth-highest rate of online bullying of all states. The survey found that over 18 percent of high school students in Michigan had experienced electronic bullying. In contrast, the national average for cyberbullying was 15.7 percent.
What Are the Most Prevalent Types of Online Bullying & Harassment in the State of Michigan?
The most common types of online bullying and harassment in the state of Michigan include:
- Revenge porn (also known as nonconsensual pornography),
- Swatting, and
- Sextortion and online extortion.
Cyberbullying is the online bullying and harassment of a child through electronic communications. These electronic communications are typically made through social media, text, or other electronic communication apps.
Cyberstalking is a form of cyberbullying that targets adults. It includes the stalking, harassment, or attacking of an individual through electronic means. Cyberstalking also includes the monitoring of an individual’s behavior without permission, trolling, or sending threatening messages.
Doxxing occurs when an individual releases or broadcasts someone’s personal identifying information. This information may include a person’s address or social security number. The release of information is done with the purpose of harming the individual or encouraging others to harm them.
Revenge porn is the distribution of intimate images without consent to humiliate and harass an individual. Revenge porn is not only limited to images but also includes intimate videos and other media.
Swatting is when an individual calls emergency services to deceive law enforcement into responding to an individual’s address thinking that a serious emergency is taking place.
Often the caller will make up a serious (and dangerous) allegation, such as a bomb threat, suicide attempt, or hostage situation.
Sextortion & Online Extortion
Sextortion is when an individual threatens to release sexually explicit photographs to extort something from the victim. The extortion attempt can involve money, more sexually explicit images, or even sexual favors.
Online extortion is when an individual extorts goods or services from a victim by making a threat or coercive statement. One example of a threat is promising to expose compromising information about an individual or their business online.
Another example of a threat would be threatening to commit a criminal offense if the individual does not pay a certain sum of money.
What Else Should You Know About the Prevalence of Online Harassment in Michigan?
If you have not been harassed online, chances are you know someone who has been. A 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that over 40 percent of American adults have been victims of online harassment. Furthermore, an estimated 25 percent of adults have experienced severe harassment. Severe harassment includes physical threats, stalking, sexual harassment, or sustained harassment.
Facebook is the most common platform for online harassment for adults. Roughly 75 percent of all cyber harassment victims were bullied on Facebook, compared to 24 percent on Twitter and Instagram.
Teens experience even higher rates of online abuse. Between 60 percent and 73 percent of American teens have been bullied or harassed online. The most common type of harassment experienced is name-calling, but they also experience more severe types of abuse such as physical threats and the sharing or distribution of explicit images.
Cyberbullying Laws in Michigan to Prevent Online Harassment
Cyberbullying can be punished in two primary ways in the legal system: criminal proceedings and civil lawsuits.
In some cases, cyberbullying can be so extreme that it violates state criminal laws. If a criminal law has been violated, then the state can pursue the perpetrator through a criminal action in Michigan court.
In a civil case, it is the victim who directly initiates the lawsuit against their harasser in a Michigan court. This provides a victim more control over how the proceeding will be litigated than in criminal cases.
What Michigan State Laws Regulate & Cover Online Bullying?
Michigan enacted a criminal law to penalize cyberbullying in 2019. This statute is codified in MCL § 750.411x.
Under MCL § 750.411x, cyberbullying requires that a perpetrator post a message on a “public media forum.” A public media forum includes “the internet or another online forum meant to convey information to people.” Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are examples of public media forums. To be criminally charged under MCL § 750.411x, the harasser must:
- Intend to place a person in fear of bodily harm or death,
- Express an intent to commit violence against the person, and
- Post the message with the intent to communicate a threat or with knowledge that it will be viewed as a threat.
Simply put, the perpetrator must intend to instill fear of bodily harm in the victim. The offender must communicate to the victim that they intend to physically harm the victim. And the offender must at least know that that the message would be viewed or construed as a threat.
What Michigan State Laws Regulate & Cover Online Harassment?
Michigan has both criminal and civil laws against cyber harassment. They include:
- Cyberstalking: MCL § 750.411s;
- Cyberbullying (as mentioned above): MCL § 750.411x;
- General harassment: MCL § 750.411(h);
- Defamation (libel and slander);
- Invasion of privacy torts;
- Intentional Infliction of emotional distress.
Cyberstalking – MCL § 750.411s
In addition to MCL § 750.411x, Michigan has a separate criminal statute that prohibits cyberstalking. This statute, MCL § 750.411s, makes it a felony under Michigan law to engage in online harassment or cyberstalking.
Under MCL § 750.411s, a person is prohibited from engaging in harassing or abusive behavior by posting messages through any electronic medium, such as the internet, without the victim’s consent.
Elements of Michigan’s Cyberstalking Statute That a Plaintiff Must Prove
To prove a harasser engaged in cyberstalking or criminal harassment under this MCL § 750.411s, the state must prove the following four elements:
- The harasser knew or had reason to know that posting the message could have caused at least two separate acts of unconsented contact with the victim.
- By posting the message(s), the harasser intended to cause conduct that would make the victim feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested.
- The conduct arising from the harassing messages would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress and to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested.
- The conduct arising from the message actually did cause the victim to suffer emotional distress and to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested.
What is worth noting about is that Michigan law does not require that harasser be the one who actually caused harm to the defendant. Michigan’s cyberstalking statute is broad in scope and may punish doxing activity where the harasser posted information to encourage other people to engage in conduct that harasses the victim.
Types of Speech That May Not Be Protected By the First Amendment
Michigan’s cyberstalking statute does not apply to all contacts with the victim and specifically excludes “constitutionally protected speech.” However, Michigan courts have previously held that several types of speech may not be protected by the First Amendment, these include:
- Speech that is lewd and obscene,
- ‘Fighting words,’ or speech that incites violence,
- True threats, and
- Fraudulent speech.
See e.g. Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, Brandenburg v. Ohio, Virginia v. Black.
The statute also does not specifically apply to internet service providers who merely provide the internet platform for third-party users to post content.
There Must Be a Nexus Between the Harassment & State of Michigan
In addition, there must be some connection to the state of Michigan for the case to be prosecuted under Michigan law. This can come in many forms. For instance, the statute can be used to prosecute the harasser in the following situations:
- The harasser posted the harassing messages while in Michigan,
- Any conduct arising from the message occurs in Michigan,
- The victim is present in Michigan at the time of the offense and/or for any element of the offense, or
- The harasser knows the victim resides in Michigan.
Under MCL § 750.411s, the harasser does not have to actually live in Michigan to be prosecuted. Neither does the victim. For instance, the victim could be visiting a family member in Michigan when they receive the harassing message. That would be sufficient to trigger the statute.
General Harassment in Michigan – MCL § 750.411(h)
Michigan’s general stalking law, MCL § 750.411(h), codifies that text and other electronic communications can amount to harassment. Specifically, electronic communications can rise to the level of harassment when the harasser makes repeated unconsented contact with the victim.
This contact must be to the extent that it would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress, and it must actually cause the victim to experience emotional distress. Conduct that is constitutionally protected or conducted for a legitimate purpose does not fall under this definition.
Harassment can also rise to the level of stalking when there is repeated harassing behavior that would cause a reasonable person to feel threatened and that actually makes the victim feel threatened.
Defamation: Libel & Slander
Defamation refers to a false statement of fact that is published to a third person that causes harm to another person or entity’s reputation. It is a civil claim, also known as a tort.
Defamation is broken down into two core types: libel and slander. Libel refers to written defamation, while slander refers to spoken defamation. Both libel and slander can be relevant in cyberbullying claims due to the nature of malicious, false, and abusive language often used by the perpetrator.
There are four elements to a Michigan defamation law claim that the plaintiff must prove:
- A false assertion of fact about the plaintiff,
- An unprivileged communication to a third-party,
- Fault amounting to at least negligence by the defendant, and
- The statement either is so shocking as to amount to defamation per se, or the publication of the statement caused special harm.
Invasion of Privacy Torts
There are typically four recognized forms of invasion of privacy claims:
- Publication of private facts,
- False light,
- Misappropriation, and
- Intrusion upon seclusion. See Restatement (Second) of Torts § 652A.
All four of these claims involve the public disclosure of a private fact that would be offensive to a reasonable person. Additionally, the statement must be of no legitimate concern to the public. This is sometimes called the “newsworthiness” exception.
Depending on the circumstances of an online harassment matter, privacy torts can be an effective means of asserting a civil cause of action against an internet harasser. For example, the tort of publication of private facts has been used successfully in relation to revenge porn cases.
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Online harassment victims may also seek to assert intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) claims in certain cases.
To prove IIED under Michigan law, a plaintiff must show that the defendant:
- Engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct,
- With intent or recklessness,
- That caused the plaintiff;
- To suffer severe emotional distress.
IIED claims are not often successful. This is common for two reasons. First, courts require that the conduct be truly extreme and outrageous to meet the standard. Courts generally require that the aggressive behavior shock the conscience. What will meet that standard, however, is vague and fact-specific, so it can be difficult to prove.
Second, it can be difficult for a plaintiff to prove emotional injuries. Often, these injuries are subjective. There is no hard and fast way to prove that someone is emotionally injured. This can also make proof difficult.
What Else Should You Know About the Laws & Regulations in Place to Protect People from Online Harassment in Michigan?
Is Text Harassment a Crime in Michigan?
Texting can be considered harassment under Michigan law. Michigan statute defines harassment by stalking as including repeated, continuing, unwanted contact that would cause a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress and that actually causes the victim emotional distress. This contact can be communicated by text or other electronic means.
Penalties for Violating Michigan’s Online Harassment Laws
Penalties for violating Michigan’s online harassment laws vary from misdemeanor to felony punishments. Incarceration between one and five years can be ordered, along with fines ranging from $1,000 to $10,000.
What Are the Penalties for Online Harassment in the State of Michigan?
Cyberbullying Punishment in Michigan – 750.411x
Cyberbullying is a misdemeanor in Michigan and is punishable by imprisonment not exceeding 93 days (not a typo!) and/or a fine of not more than $500. However, in certain circumstances, the punishment can be more severe.
For example, if the offender has previously been convicted of cyberbullying, then the crime is still a misdemeanor but is punishable by up to one-year imprisonment and/or up to a $1,000 fine.
If the offender’s conduct shows a continued pattern of harassing behavior and that behavior actually causes serious injury to the victim, then the crime is a felony punishable by up to five years imprisonment and/or up to a $5,000 fine.
Finally, if the harassing behavior causes the death of the victim, then the crime is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $10,000.
Cyberstalking Punishment in Michigan – MCL § 750.411s
If a defendant is found guilty of violating this statute, they may be imprisoned for two to five years and be required to pay a fine of $5,000 to $10,000, depending on the severity of the offense.
A violation of Michigan’s cyberstalking statute, MCL § 750.411s, is punishable by up to two years in prison and up to $5,000 in fines. But in some circumstances, the penalties can be increased.
For example, a violation of the statute can be punished with up to five years imprisonment and up to $10,000 in fines if any of the following circumstances apply:
- Posting the message is in violation of a restraining order or injunction of which the harasser had notice.
- Posting the message is in violation of a condition of probation, parole, pretrial release, or release on bond pending appeal.
- Posting the message resulted in a credible threat being communicated to the victim, their family members, or individuals living in the same home as the victim.
- The perpetrator had previously been convicted of violating this law or similar anti-harassment laws.
- The victim is a minor and the harasser is at least 5 years older than the victim.
General Harassment Punishment in Michigan – MCL § 750.411(h)
Under Michigan law, stalking is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one-year imprisonment and/or up to a $1,000 fine. But if the stalking victim is under the age of 18 during any point of the harassment and the offender is more than 5 years older than the victim, then the stalking will rise to the level of a felony. Felony stalking can be punished by up to five years imprisonment and/or a $10,000 fine.
Stalking can also be a felony if it rises to the level of aggravated stalking under MCL 750.411i. Aggravated stalking requires at least one of the following situations to occur:
- At least one of the harassing acts is committed in violation of a restraining order or injunction of which the offender had notice.
- At least one of the harassing acts is in violation of a condition of probation, parole, pretrial release, or release on bond pending appeal.
- The offender made a credible threat against the victim, the victim’s family members, or other individuals living in the same home as the victim.
- The offender was previously convicted of stalking.
Aggravated stalking is punishable by up to five years imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $10,000. As with general stalking, if the victim is under 18 and the offender is at least 5 years older than the victim, the punishment is more severe. In this case, aggravated stalking is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment and/or up to a $15,000 fine.
What Else Should You Know About Michigan Penalties & State Laws in Relation to Online Bullying & Harassment?
No two states approach online bullying and harassment with the same legal framework or penalties. Statutes and definitions can vary among states. Courts interpret these statutes differently. It is important to consult an experienced online harassment attorney to help you understand the law in your state and your options.
What to Do if You Are a Victim of Online Harassment in Michigan
Over 40 percent of adults are harassed online. That number is even higher for teens. But not all of these instances are in violation of the law. Even if the harassment you are experiencing is not unlawful, there may still be remedies to put an end to it.
How Can I Determine if the Type of Harassment I Am Facing Violates the Law & What Can I Do If It Does?
If you are repeatedly contacted by someone online without your consent, you may be the subject of unlawful online harassment. Those contacts must be objectively harassing or scary. This means that a reasonable person would also think they are harassing or scary. Posting the messages must also be intended to cause you emotional distress, and they must in fact cause you emotional distress.
If you are in this situation, you may have legal rights. Contact the authorities or an experienced internet attorney to discuss your options.
If the Online Harassment I Am Facing Does Not Violate the Law, What Are My Options?
Even if the behavior you are experiencing does not rise to the level of unlawful online harassment, you still have options.
If you are experiencing harassment through an online platform, consider reporting the behavior, as the conduct may violate the platform’s Terms of Service. In some circumstances, the behavior may be grounds for having the harasser’s account terminated or suspended.
If you are harassed online by someone who you do not know or who is not a “friend,” you may find that setting your social media and public profile setting to private stops the harassment.
A common saying in online chatter is “don’t feed the trolls.” The more you engage with the harasser, the more they respond. Stop responding or engaging further. With nothing further to respond to, internet “trolls” often go back under their bridges.
Finally, know when to contact an attorney. If the behavior escalates, it may cross into unlawful online harassment.
How Can I Proceed to File Suit Against Someone Who Has Harassed Me Online in Michigan?
File a Report With Local Authorities
If you believe you are the victim of criminal harassment, file a report with your local authorities. They can help you evaluate whether what you are experiencing amounts to criminal harassment.
If you have a sound case, it may ultimately lead to a criminal prosecution against your harasser.
File a Discrimination Complaint
If you believe you have been the victim of discrimination within the past 180 days, you may file a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
You can do so by calling 1-800-482-3604 or emailing MDCRServiceCenter@michigan.gov. You can also file a complaint through an online form.
Consult With an Experienced Online Harassment Attorney
An experienced internet attorney can help you understand what the required elements are for a civil suit or a criminal suit against your harasser. They can work with you to understand your claims and the costs and benefits of proceeding with a lawsuit.
An experienced online harassment attorney can also help you bring your best case to the authorities. Finally, an experienced internet attorney can assist with collecting and preserving the evidence you will need to maximize chances of success for your claim.
At Minc Law, we have extensive experience and a proven track record combating online harassment, cyberstalking, internet defamation, and other online privacy-related issues. Although we are located in Ohio, we represent clients across the U.S. and the globe.
“Minc is the guardian angel of the web. In a world where trolls will spread blatant falsehoods with apparent impunity, anyone is vulnerable to on-line attack. It is such a relief to know that there is a team of experts who know how to protect individuals and businesses when they strike. Thank you so much!”
JSS, March 12, 2019
If you need help handling electronic harassment and your next steps, schedule a free, no-obligation consultation by calling (216) 373-7706, speaking with a Chat representative, or filling out our online contact form.