Important Online Harassment Laws in Massachusetts to Know Featured Image

Important Online Harassment Laws in Massachusetts to Know

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If you live in Massachusetts and are the target of online attacks, it may be overwhelming and confusing to know where to turn and what your legal options are to put an end to the abuse. Victims of online harassment in Massachusetts may have one or more of several legal claims depending on the type of online abuse and the nature of the conduct by the perpetrator. These are:

  • Criminal harassment,
  • Stalking,
  • Extortion,
  • Annoying electronic communications, and
  • False reports to police officers.

For example, to be charged with criminal harassment in Massachusetts, a perpetrator must contact their victim maliciously and with the intention of causing substantial emotional distress. Similarly, Massachusetts law also criminalizes stalking, a form of harassment that involves a pattern of conduct and includes threats to the victim’s physical safety.

Further, to be charged with extortion, the perpetrator must maliciously threaten their victim with the intent to extort money or compel them to do something against their will.

Related charges in Massachusetts also include annoying electronic communications—or repeated digital contact that harasses, annoys, or molests a victim—and knowingly making false reports to police officers. A false police report may include swatting, a dangerous form of online harassment that sends armed police to a victim’s address due to a prank call.

At Minc Law, we have extensive experience helping victims of online harassment across the U.S. put an end to the abuse and attacks. We know how to navigate state online harassment laws to hold perpetrators accountable for their unlawful actions and monitor clients’ digital footprints to protect against future attacks.

Below, we explain how Massachusetts state laws address various types of online harassment. We also provide tips on what to do if you are a victim of internet abuse in Massachusetts.

Types of Online Harassment in Massachusetts

Online harassment is a prevalent and growing concern across the country. Between 25% and 40% of adult internet users in the U.S. say they have been harassed online, with 45% of those respondents experiencing “severe” harassment.

In this section, we explain the most common types of harassment and how Massachusetts law protects its residents.

What Are the Types of Online Harassment in Massachusetts?

There are many varieties of online abuse affecting Massachusetts residents today, but not all of them are specifically addressed in state law. The most common types of online harassment Massachusetts residents face include:

Current Massachusetts law does not yet address revenge porn, doxxing, or swatting. However, those activities typically fall under other existing laws, such as harassment, extortion, stalking, or making false reports to law enforcement.

If you are the target of revenge porn or doxxing, please see our comprehensive guides explaining ‘What to Do If You Have Been Doxxed’ and ‘How to File a Revenge Porn Lawsuit’.

Why Are Not All Types of Harassment Covered Under Massachusetts Laws?

Because legislation typically moves at such a slow pace, it does not evolve at a commensurate rate with the digital world—especially since the digital world evolves so quickly. Revenge porn, for example, is a relatively new phenomenon that state legislatures have been slow to address.

While 48 states and the District of Columbia have criminalized revenge porn, Massachusetts and South Carolina still lack such laws. The Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a bill outlawing revenge porn in May 2022, but the state senate has not yet voted in favor of the bill. However, Massachusetts lawmakers may approve the bill addressing revenge porn by the end of the 2023-2023 legislative session.

What Types of Online Harassment Are You Protected Against in Massachusetts?

Massachusetts law currently protects against the following kinds of online harassment:

  • Criminal harassment,
  • Stalking,
  • Extortion,
  • Annoying electronic communication(s), and
  • Making false reports to police officers.

Massachusetts also has a bullying prevention law on its books, which we will briefly discuss in the next paragraph.

What Else Should You Know About Online Harassment in Massachusetts?

Massachusetts’ bullying law, including its rules against cyberbullying, applies specifically to students and school staff. Those who fall under this law repeatedly use written, verbal, and electronic expressions or physical acts and gestures toward a victim to cause harm and fear.

While cyberbullying is not limited to students and school employees, it is worth noting that state law limits its language to this scenario.

Internet Defamation lawyer Checklist

Massachusetts Laws & Regulations in Place to Protect Against Online Harassment?

In this section, we explore the specific state statutes addressing online harassment in Massachusetts. If you are the victim of online attacks, you may be able to press charges against the attacker if their behavior matches one of the definitions below.

What Massachusetts State Laws Regulate & Cover Online Bullying?

Massachusetts General Law ch. 71 § 370 describes bullying (and cyberbullying) in the context of students and school staff. In this statute, bullying is defined as the repeated use of language or acts that:

  • Cause physical or emotional harm to the victim or their property,
  • Place the victim in reasonable fear of harm to themselves or their property,
  • Create a hostile environment for the victim,
  • Infringe on the rights of the victim, or
  • Disrupt the education process or orderly operation of a school.

Similarly, cyberbullying is defined in Massachusetts as “bullying through the use of technology or any electronic communication.” This act includes creating a web page or content to assume the identity of a victim and knowingly impersonating them online.

What Massachusetts State Laws Regulate & Cover Online Harassment?

Massachusetts law currently addresses five specific forms of online harassment:

  • Criminal harassment,
  • Stalking,
  • Extortion,
  • Annoying electronic communication, and
  • False reports to police officers.

What is Considered Criminal Harassment in Massachusetts?

Massachusetts defines criminal harassment—including online harassment—as conduct that is willfully and maliciously directed at a specific person with the intention of causing substantial emotional distress.

For example, if a person repeatedly messages you with obscene insults intended to damage your emotional health, they are committing criminal harassment.

How Does Massachusetts Define Stalking?

Massachusetts General Law ch. 265 § 43A defines stalking as a knowing pattern of conduct towards a specific person that seriously alarms or annoys them, while also placing them in “imminent fear of death or bodily injury.”

Stalking is defined similarly to criminal harassment in that it involves willfully and maliciously causing “substantial emotional distress” to a victim. But stalking takes the harm one step further by making a threat “with the intent to place the person in imminent fear of death or bodily injury.”

A stalker not only contacts you repeatedly in a distressing manner—they threaten you and make you afraid for your physical safety.

What Constitutes Extortion in Massachusetts?

Under Massachusetts law, extortion involves maliciously threatening another person with the intent to extort money or compel them to do something against their will.

An extortionist may threaten physical injury to their victim, or they may threaten to damage their victim’s property. They may also use their professional authority—as a police officer or licensing authority employee, for example—to coerce their victim into complying.

What Are Considered Annoying Electronic Communications in Massachusetts?

Massachusetts defines annoying electronic communication(s) as repeated phone or online contact made for the sole purpose of “harassing, annoying or molesting the person or the person’s family, whether or not conversation ensues.” This behavior also includes using obscene or indecent language with the victim.

What Are False Reports to Police Officers in Massachusetts?

Massachusetts General Law ch. 269 § 13A defines this act as intentionally making a false report of a crime to police officers. Generally, an individual who makes a false report of a crime to a police officer will not be held liable if the report is made negligently or by accident.

For example, the dangerous practice of swatting—or attempting to send a large number of armed police officers to the victim’s address—would likely fall under this law.

What Are Common Defenses to Claims for Online Harassment in Massachusetts?

Your specific circumstances determine which possible defenses to harassment charges are available. However, in these types of cases, the most common way to avoid being charged with harassment is to claim the behavior was either:

  • Free speech protected under the First Amendment; or
  • Not really threatening to the victim (and a reasonable person would not feel fear or actual distress).

While the First Amendment grants you the right to freedom of expression, that speech cannot constitute a serious and imminent threat to another person. For example, stating “I hate John Smith” is your opinion—but telling John Smith about your plans to harm him constitutes harassment and is not protected by the First Amendment.

Of course, not all speech is as clear as the example above. If your language was more ambiguous, you may be able to argue that it was not a real threat—and it is up to the court to decide if a reasonable person should feel in danger of imminent harm.

What Else Should You Know About Online Harassment Laws in Massachusetts?

In Massachusetts, the statute of limitations (or time limit to file a claim) for online harassment varies depending on if it is a criminal or civil charge. Massachusetts sets a three-year limit for most civil harassment cases.

For most types of felonies and misdemeanors, on the other hand, the statute of limitations is usually six years.

A felony is any crime punishable by death or imprisonment for more than one year, while a misdemeanor is typically punishable by less than 12 months in jail. Common misdemeanor punishments also include fines, community service, and probation.

What Are the Penalties for Online Harassment in Massachusetts?

Online abuse is a serious matter—and being found guilty of such behavior can land the perpetrator in jail or prison, or cost them a hefty fine (or both). In this section, we explore the various fines and punishments Massachusetts law imposes for being found guilty of online harassment.

What Are the Penalties For Criminal Harassment in Massachusetts?

Penalties for criminal harassment can include one or both of the following:

  • A fine of up to $1,000, or
  • Up to two years and six months in jail.

For second and subsequent offenses, penalties can include up to two years and six months in jail, or a state prison sentence of up to ten years.

How is Criminal Stalking Penalized in Massachusetts?

Penalties for criminal stalking in Massachusetts can include a fine of up to $1,000 and either:

  • Up to two years and six months in jail, or
  • Up to five years in prison.

If the stalking offense was in violation of a protective order, the penalty can be between one to five years in jail or state prison, plus any additional fines.

Second and subsequent offenses can see penalties of two to ten years in jail or state prison, as well as any additional fines imposed by the judge.

What Are the Penalties For Extortion in Massachusetts?

Massachusetts law lays out penalties for extortion that include:

  • A state prison sentence of up to fifteen years,
  • Up to two years and six months in jail, and/or
  • A fine of up to $5,000.

What is the Penalty For Annoying Electronic Communications in Massachusetts?

Penalties for annoying electronic communication in Massachusetts include a fine of up to $500, imprisonment for up to three months, or both.

What is the Penalty For Making a False Report of a Crime in Massachusetts?

Making a false report to a police officer in Massachusetts can warrant penalties of a $100$500 fine, less than one year in jail or state prison, or both a fine and imprisonment.

How to Determine if the Online Harassment You Are Facing Is Unlawful

The internet can be both a blessing and a curse; while it brings people of all demographics and walks of life together, it can also be a breeding ground for malicious behavior and bullying. However, there is a wide range of malicious or damaging behavior that can take place online—and not all of it is considered harassment by legal definition.

We always recommend speaking to an experienced online harassment attorney if you are unsure whether an online user’s behavior rises to the legal definition of harassment. In the meantime, the section below lists helpful considerations to keep in mind if you are being attacked online.

How Can You Delineate Between What is & What is Not Online Harassment?

To qualify as harassment in Massachusetts, the harassing online activity perpetrated by an individual must contain these five elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • The defendant engaged in a knowing pattern of conduct, speech, or series of acts on at least three separate occasions;
  • The defendant intended to target the victim on each occasion;
  • The conduct, speech, or acts seriously alarmed the victim;
  • The behavior would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress; and
  • The defendant committed the conduct, speech, or acts willfully and maliciously.

If the Online Harassment You Are Facing is Unlawful, What Are Your Options?

If the harassment you are facing is unlawful, you may press criminal charges against the harasser. You can also seek a court order (also known as a 258E order), harassment prevention order, restraining order, or protective order.

In Massachusetts, these types of harassment prevention orders are not limited to specific types of relationships. A victim may qualify so long as each of the five elements of harassment (above) is met.

To file a 258E order, call your local Superior Court, Boston Municipal Court, or District Court and provide the necessary information to file the 258E Application. This information includes:

  • A complaint form,
  • An affidavit describing in detail the incidents of harassment,
  • A plaintiff confidential information form, and
  • A defendant information form.

In addition to criminal charges, you also have the option to file a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator.

By filing a civil claim, you may seek monetary damages for the emotional, personal, and financial harm you suffered as a result of the harassment. For example, the judge may order the harasser to cover the cost of therapy for the emotional distress you suffered. You may also seek an injunction to stop the harasser from contacting you further or continuing to engage in their repeated pattern of harassing behavior.

If the Type of Online Harassment You Are Facing is Not Against the Law, What Are Your Options?

Just because an online attack is technically lawful, it does not mean it is not harmful. You still have options to help preserve your emotional health and safety.

For example, we recommend setting your online profiles and accounts to private, as well as blocking the accounts responsible for the harassment. Depending on the severity of the harassment, you may want to completely disable your social media accounts until the situation is resolved.

If you are being harassed on social media, you can also report the harassing behavior to the online platform—especially if you believe the conduct violates the platform’s Terms of Service.

You should also avoid responding to the harasser, since engaging with them may draw more attention to you and escalate the matter.

We also recommend documenting and preserving all evidence of their behavior in case it eventually rises to the legal definition of harassment. The more proof you have of the attacks, the easier it will be to hold the perpetrator accountable. Take screenshots of all harassing messages, and be sure to include the URL of any posts and social profiles that are harassing you.

We Can Help You Tackle Online Harassment in Massachusetts

Do not try to weather the harassment alone. Online attacks can be extremely isolating and harmful to your mental and emotional health. Confide in trusted family and friends, and speak to a support group or agency that can counsel you through your experience.

We recommend referring to the following resources for victims of harassment:

  • The Cyber Helpline Online Harassment and Bullying Guide
  • The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative
  • The CyberSmile Help Center

An experienced internet attorney can also be an invaluable asset. They can be a supportive and judgment-free presence during this difficult time—while also helping you formulate a response strategy for ending the abuse once and for all.

At Minc Law, we have extensive experience helping targets of online harassment in Massachusetts and the U.S. navigate the complexities of internet harassment and put an end to the abuse, and hold the perpetrators liable for their actions.

“Mike Pelagalli, aka: my Angel. Before, I found Mike, I searched for months for an attorney, meanwhile the social circle ruining my name was growing. I was depressed, and visiting very dark places. After our first phone call, I cried. I knew I had found him. Not only has an attorney, but also a friend, and a realistic professional who does not want to see me spending unnecessary money. As a Father himself, he and my dad have shared relatable concerns acting as they would having face the situation. Mike Pelagalli always has his game face on, and the best part….not only does Mike want to win, but he aggressively works to provide you with vindication and MERCY! So, confused or lost, call the Angels at Minc Law.”

Allie W.
Jan 12, 2023

If you would like to explore your options to stop online harassment in Massachusetts (or any state), reach out to schedule your initial no-obligation consultation with an intake specialist by calling us at (216) 373-7706, speaking with a Chat representative, or filling out our online contact form.

Contact Minc Law

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