Pennsylvania cyber harassment laws offer some protections for victims of online harassment but are still in their infancy and often enforced under general criminal and civil harassment, stalking, and cyberbullying laws.
To be charged with cyberstalking, a perpetrator must exhibit a pattern of behavior or communications showing intent to cause bodily harm or mental anguish to another individual. To prove cyber harassment, there must be a pattern of online conduct or internet communications showing intent to harass, annoy or alarm another. Finally, the crime of cyberbullying occurs when an individual uses electronic means to harass, annoy, or alarm a child.
At Minc Law, we have dedicated our practice to ending online harassment and holding perpetrators accountable for their actions. We also provide tools that help our clients monitor their digital risks and stop further cyber-harassment and unlawful attacks.
In this article, we will discuss the following:
- The most common types of online harassment,
- Criminal harassment laws in Pennsylvania,
- Civil harassment laws in Pennsylvania,
- Limitations to Pennsylvania’s harassment laws,
- What to do if you want to file online harassment charges in Pennsylvania,
- How to find the right harassment attorney for you.
What Constitutes Online Harassment in Pennsylvania?
Cyber harassment in Pennsylvania (and across the globe) is on the rise. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, more than four in ten Americans have experienced online harassment of some form. Growing shares of Americans report that the level of harassment is escalating, including physical threats, sexual harassment, and sustained harassment.
What Are the Most Common Types of Online Harassment
Pennsylvania law protects individuals against many different types of online harassment. These include:
- Revenge pornography.
We discuss all of these types of online harassment below.
What is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is the online bullying and harassment of a child or minor through electronic communications. Sometimes cyberbullying happens over text messages. More commonly, cyberbullying is perpetrated over social media sites, like Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram.
Often, but not always, the perpetrator of this crime is a minor too.
What is Cyberstalking?
Cyberstalking is a form of electronic harassment or intimidation that involves stalking, such as tracking someone’s location or monitoring their online behavior without permission.
Cyberstalking can also include trolling and sending threatening messages over social media, text, or by other electronic means. Typically, the offensive behavior takes place over an extended period of time.
What is Doxxing?
Doxxing is the act of releasing or broadcasting someone’s personal, identifiable information with the intention of harming them, encouraging others to harm them, or another malicious intent.
Typical information that doxxers release includes someone’s personal address, workplace or school name or location, phone number, social security number, or credit card number.
What is Swatting?
Swatting is a dangerous harassment technique that involves deceiving law enforcement into responding to another person’s address without cause.
Swatting is triggered by a call to emergency services describing a false report of a serious emergency, such as a bomb threat, suicide attempt, or hostage situation.
What Are Sextortion & Online Extortion?
Sextortion is when a perpetrator threatens to release an individual’s explicit images or media unless they pay the sextortionist a ransom. The ransom can include money, sending more explicit images, or even sexual favors.
Online extortion is similar to sextortion but does not always involve explicit images. Extortion occurs if someone takes or withholds someone else’s property by making a threat. The threat might include threatening to commit a criminal offense, accusing someone of a criminal offense, exposing compromising information, or otherwise inflict harm.
What is Revenge Porn?
Revenge porn is the distribution, without consent, of sexually explicit images of someone else without their consent. Often, but not always, a former intimate partner publishes the images online (ex. revenge porn website).
Laws in Pennsylvania Protecting Against Online Harassment
Online harassment in Pennsylvania can be punished through two main avenues:
- Criminal proceedings, or
- Civil lawsuits.
If harassment rises to the level of criminal behavior, that is, the behavior violates a criminal law, then the state can file a criminal lawsuit against the offender. The cost of the proceedings is borne by the state. If the offender is found guilty, they can be punished. Typical punishments include a fine or even incarceration. The offender will also have a criminal record going forward.
Civil lawsuits, on the other hand, are brought directly by the harassment victim against the harasser. In a civil lawsuit, the victim can request money for the damage the offender caused or a court-ordered injunction to put a stop to their conduct. The amount of money demanded depends on the damages. The victim bears the cost of the lawsuit, although in some instances legal fees can be fully or at least partially recovered.
Examples of civil damages sought might include money for future therapy bills, reputation repair costs, attorney’s fees, and pain and suffering.
What is Considered Criminal Harassment in Pennsylvania?
General Harassment: 18 Pa.C.S. § 2709(a)
Under 18 Pa.C.S. § 2709(a) a person can be criminally liable for harassing another person.
General harassment is generally broken down into two categories:
- Harassment that involves direct contact, and
- Harassment through communications (also known as cyber harassment when the communications occur online).
In terms of physical harm, shoving or physically striking a person can be considered harassment if done with the intent to annoy, harass, or alarm the person. Following another person around a public place, or repeatedly acting in a way that serves no legitimate purpose other than to harass or scare someone, can also amount to harassment.
Online Communications Can Qualify as Criminal Harassment
Under Pennsylvania’s general harassment law online communications can qualify as harassment. Harassing communications include language, drawings, or caricatures about another person that are lewd, lascivious, threatening, or obscene. Otherwise, non-harassing statements can become harassing by repetition or inconvenience.
To be actionable for harassment, the communications must be made with the intent to annoy, alarm, or harass. The communications must also not be constitutionally protected speech.
To amount to harassment, the communications do not need to be made face-to-face. Harassing behavior often occurs online. This is commonly referred to as cyber harassment. These communications might be considered harassing because they are lewd, because they are constant, or because they occur at extremely inconvenient times.
For example, a defendant was found to be liable for harassment by posting lewd comments about a teenager on Facebook. The lewd comments in question asserted that the 15-year-old victim was not only sexually active but also had a sexually transmitted disease. The court inferred an intent to harass based on the totality of the circumstances; both comments were false, they were viewed by others, and “…there was no evidence that Cox [defendant] posted the comment at issue for any purpose other than the harassment, annoyance, or alarming of the Victim.”
A Pennsylvania appellate court ruled similarly in a 2015 case involving the continued and repeated verbal and public posting of threats to use weapons of mass destruction directed at employees of a local hospital. The court cited a 2002 ruling which emphasized, “…the simple fact that the appellant sent multiple emails that caused the psychologist concern and alarm was sufficient to establish a course of conduct.” The repeated conduct was sufficient to indicate to the trial court that the appellant had intended to cause substantial emotional distress to the victim.
For offline communications, if someone is repeatedly communicating with someone anonymously even after they have been asked to stop, that can amount to harassment. Or if someone is repeatedly calling the victim at 3 in the morning, or while they are trying to work, that can amount to harassment.
How Pennsylvania Classifies General Harassment
Not all forms of harassment are treated equally under the law. Some types of harassment amount to a summary offense. A summary offense is the lowest level of crime in Pennsylvania, similar to a traffic violation.
Pennsylvania has defined three of its seven forms of harassment as amounting to a summary offense. These are:
- Striking, shoving, kicking, or otherwise subjecting the other person to physical contact, or attempting or threatening to do the same,
- Following the other person in or about a public place or places, and
- Engaging in a course of conduct or repeatedly committing acts that serve no legitimate purpose.
The remaining four forms of harassment amount to a third-degree misdemeanor. These are:
- Communicating to or about another person any lewd, lascivious, threatening or obscene words, language, drawings or caricatures,
- Communicating repeatedly in an anonymous manner,
- Communicating repeatedly at extremely inconvenient hours, or
- Communicating repeatedly in a manner other than those described above.
How Pennsylvania Punishes General Harassment
Summary offenses are punishable in Pennsylvania by a fine. Fines for summary offenses are capped at $300. Summary offenses may also result in imprisonment of up to 90 days, although this is uncommon.
Third-degree misdemeanors are punishable by fines of not more than $2,500 and up to one year in prison.
Cyberbullying: Cyber Harassment of a Child 18 Pa.C.S. § 2709(a.1)
Cyber harassment of a child is a separate crime under 18 Pa.C.S. § 2709(a.1). A person commits cyber harassment of a child if they continuously and intentionally harass, annoy, or alarm a child by engaging in certain conduct by electronic means.
This conduct includes making seriously disparaging comments about the child, particularly around the child’s physical characteristics, sexual activity, sexuality, or mental or physical health or condition. It also includes making a threat to inflict harm.
How Pennsylvania Classifies Cyber Harassment of a Child
Cyber harassment of a child is a third-degree misdemeanor.
How Pennsylvania Punishes Cyber Harassment of a Child
Third-degree misdemeanors are punished by fines of not more than $2,500 and up to one year in prison.
If the person perpetrating the cyber harassment is a juvenile, they may instead be placed in a diversionary program. As part of this program, the juvenile may be required to take part in an educational program that discusses the consequences of cyber harassment. Upon completion of the program, the juvenile’s records will be expunged of the charges.
General Stalking: 18 Pa.C.S. § 2709.1
Under 18 Pa.C.S. § 2709.1, A person commits the crime of stalking when they engage in repeated conduct or acts (such as following someone) or repeated communications with another person.
The stalker must do so intending to put another person in reasonable fear of bodily injury or to cause them substantial emotional distress. The conduct or communications can take place through electronic means.
While stalking is often considered an in-person crime, Pennsylvania recognizes that stalking can be emotionally devastating, and criminal, when it occurs online as well.
How Pennsylvania Classifies General Stalking
A first incidence of stalking is treated as a misdemeanor in the first degree.
If the person has been convicted of stalking before, or if the person has previously committed an act of violence against the stalking victim or the stalking victim’s family or household member, it will be treated as a felony in the third-degree.
How Pennsylvania Punishes General Stalking
A misdemeanor in the first-degree is punishable by fines of up to $10,000 and imprisonment for a period of not more than 5 years.
A felony in the third-degree is punishable by a fine of up to $15,000 and imprisonment for a period of not more than 7 years.
Civil Harassment Causes of Action in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania does not have a separate civil cause of action for harassment. Targets of cyber harassment may still bring harassment claims under other areas of the law, including defamation, intrusion upon seclusion, and other civil causes of action.
Defamation: Libel & Slander
Defamation occurs when someone publishes or says something false about a person to another individual or group and causes injury or damage to the victim’s character.
There are two main types of defamation: slander and libel. Slander is spoken defamation. Libel is written defamation.
Some false statements are treated more seriously than others. Falsehoods alleging that a person has committed a criminal offense, has a loathsome disease (including a sexually transmitted disease), or business or sexual misconduct are considered defamatory “per se (ex. Slander per se). This means that the individual who has been defamed does not need to prove damages.
Libel claims can be especially relevant to cyberbullying claims. This is because a libel claim could be used to recover civil damages when a harasser publishes false information or false accusations about the victim online. However, slander may also be relevant to cyberbullying claims if the harasser verbally spreads the misinformation found in the cyberbullying post or posts.
The Tort of Unauthorized Intentional Intrusion or Prying into a Person’s Seclusion (Intrusion Upon Seclusion)
Pennsylvania recognizes the tort of intrusion upon seclusion. Intrusion upon seclusion, also known as invasion of privacy, occurs when someone intentionally intrudes on the solitude of another in their private affairs. In other words, the tort protects an individual’s right to be left alone.
The tort of intrusion upon seclusion can take various forms. These forms include:
- Intrusion into the plaintiff’s place of seclusion or privacy: An example of this could be repeated phone calls at all hours of the night at a person’s home.
- Overseeing or overhearing the plaintiff’s private affairs: This could include placing a GPS tracker on an individual’s car or placing “stalkerware” (tracking software) on an individual’s computer.
- Some other form of investigation into the plaintiff’s private affairs: This could include electronic means, including by hacking into or otherwise viewing the plaintiff’s email.
To be actionable, the intrusion must be highly offensive to a reasonable person. The distinguishing factor here is whether the intrusion would cause “mental suffering, shame or humiliation to a person of ordinary sensibilities.”
Conduct can be highly offensive if it is exceptionally harassing. Generally, the level of harassment needed is shown by persistent, repeated contact.
Intrusion Upon Seclusion Case Examples
Repeated Harassing Conduct May Constitute Intrusion Upon Seclusion
For instance, repeated phone calls to the victim’s house “with such persistence and frequency as to amount to a course of hounding the plaintiff, that becomes a substantial burden to his existence” will likely be an invasion of privacy.
In addition, “[r]epeated harassment that amounts to hounding and becomes a substantial burden to a plaintiff” may constitute intrusion upon seclusion if other elements of the tort are satisfied.
A Single Outrageous Intrusion May Constitute Intrusion Upon Seclusion
While a persistent course of conduct is generally required, an invasion of privacy can be so outrageous that a single intrusion can suffice. For instance, filming someone in their shower one time would likely be considered an invasion of privacy.
Courts May Issue Injunctions If a Perpetrator Violates the Law
Generally, civil courts have found that they can legally issue injunctions if credible evidence exists that the perpetrator is violating the law and intentionally interfering with a person’s personal or civil rights by harassing, annoying, or alarming a person.
In Hartzell v. Cummings, after a series of landlord-tenant disputes, the defendant registered two domains containing the plaintiff’s name (Kevinhartzell.com and Kevinhartzell.net) and repeatedly published false information concerning the plaintiff’s connections to organized crime and enrollment in the Witness Protection Program.
The court issued a preliminary injunction regarding the two specific web pages, finding that because the domains were not registered to exercise a constitutional right, rather to conduct an unlawful, continuous campaign of harassment against the plaintiff, the intent to harass may be inferred from the totality of the circumstances.
Intrusion Upon Seclusion May Extend to Emails
The tort of intrusion may extend to the publication of email communications, if “…the interference with the plaintiff’s seclusion is a substantial one and the communications would be offensive to the ordinary reasonable person.”
Civil Action For Harassment
There is no stand-alone tort for harassment under Pennsylvania law. This means that if someone is harassing you, you cannot file a civil suit against them for a tort of harassment.
However, actions that are harassing can amount to other torts, such as:
- Civil battery,
- Intrusion upon seclusion, and
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress.
If a harasser hits or otherwise physically touches you, you might have a cause of action for civil battery.
Intrusion Upon Seclusion
If someone harasses you digitally in a way that interferes with your privacy, this could constitute a privacy tort, such as intrusion upon seclusion (discussed above).
Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress
Extreme harassing behavior can also amount to the separate tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Limitations to Online Harassment Laws in Pennsylvania
State legislatures have only recently begun attempting to deal with the unique role that the internet can play in the context of harassment.
In Pennsylvania, the legislature has considered bills to deal with online forms of harassment but has not passed very many. For instance, Pennsylvania lawmakers have failed repeatedly to amend the state’s criminal code to provide for the offense of unsolicited electronic dissemination of intimate images.
The notable exception to the state’s failure to pass anti-online harassment legislation is the passage of the provision regarding cyberbullying by children in 18 Pa.C.S. § 2709(a.1). As discussed above, this statute provides criminal penalties for offenders who harass or bully children online.
In addition, Pennsylvania does not have a discrete tort for harassment. Instead, harassment claims must be shoehorned into other, existing torts like assault, intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion into seclusion, or others as discussed above. This means that conduct that might be actionable as harassment in another state might not be actionable in Pennsylvania.
How to File Online Harassment Charges in Pennsylvania
If you think you are a victim of criminal online harassment, you should file a report with your local authorities. The specific elements that need to be proven vary based on the potential charges.
An experienced harassment attorney can help you understand what the required elements are and tell you whether the behavior you described is criminal. An attorney can also talk through the types of evidence that would be most helpful to support a criminal harassment claim.
If you think you have a civil claim for online harassment, you may also want to retain an attorney to discuss your potential claims. You will also need to begin collecting and organizing evidence of the harassment.
Below, we discuss what sort of information you need to file an online harassment charge in Pennsylvania.
What Information Do You Need to File Online Harassment Charges in Pennsylvania
Being the target of online harassment is stressful. It can affect your reputation. It can affect your mental health. It can leave you feeling scared for your physical safety. It can even lead to physical symptoms, like panic attacks, anxiety, and depression.
If you decide you want to fight back against online harassment and file charges, here are some things you need to know.
Do Not Contact the Harasser
You may not know who your harasser is. However, even if you do, it is important that you do not contact them. Responding to the harasser can escalate matters, causing the harassment to increase or intensify.
If you feel you are in immediate danger, contact the police. Contacting the police has an added benefit. Once police are involved, there is official documentation of your case. This can help show a pattern of harassment if online harassment continues.
Preserve All Evidence of the Harassment
Some forms of social media, like Snapchat, are temporary. Others, like Twitter or Facebook, can be deleted by the poster. As soon as you see a harassing message, post, or image, you will want to preserve it.
We recommend taking screenshots of the offending material with your iPhone, Android, or computer. You can also use professional tools to screenshot harassing texts and messages. Professional software tools such as VisualPing and Page Vault not only document the harassment but also ensure an evidentiary “chain of custody” so a proper foundation can be established should the matter go to court.
When you capture the evidence, make sure to include details like:
- The date and time that the messages, posts, or phone calls were made;
- The user account URL of the person who posted, if on social media;
- A screen capture of the user account of who posted, if on social media;
- The URL of the harassing content, if online;
- The content of the harassing post, posts, or text messages;
- Search results in which the harassing content appears;
- Any communications with the individual, including voicemails;
- A call log showing phone calls or texts from the harasser.
Collect as much information as you can and as quickly as you can. You can find a sample technology abuse log from the National Network to End Domestic Violence online that may be a helpful starting point.
Finally, make sure to create a backup of your evidence on an external hard drive or in the Cloud.
Organize Your Documentation
A common hallmark of harassment is that it involves repeated contact. The amount of documentation you accumulate can soon feel overwhelming.
It is best to organize your documentation from the start. You will want to keep a folder, spreadsheet, or another document that includes the incidents of harassment in chronological order.
Creating a timeline or incident log helps to show the history of harassment at a glance. It is also a helpful tool if you decide to involve law enforcement or initiate your own civil suit. It will make your documentation easier to review, allowing others to help you more efficiently.
Be sure to also keep a catalog of all the dates and times you have called the police about the harassment. It is important to show that you have sought help with the matter. This will aid in establishing that you felt threatened and better establish your claim.
Collect Evidence if the Harassment Has Extended to In-person Harassment
If the harassment has extended to in-person harassment, you should keep a written record or diary of what happened, including the date and time of the incident, if there were any witnesses, what exactly happened, and any evidence you have of it (such as contemporaneous texts or photos).
If your harasser is following you or is physically within your presence, your primary concern should be your safety. Do not take photos if it is unsafe to do so. Call the police if you feel threatened or in danger.
Gather Information About the Identity of the Harasser
Sometimes you know who the harasser is – for instance, a classmate, colleague, or current or former partner. If you know the identity of the harasser, you will want to collect as much personally-identifying information as you have on the offender. This information includes:
- Name and nicknames,
- Phone number,
- Social media accounts,
- Internet service providers.
If you do not know the identity of the harasser, we recommend working with an experienced attorney or online investigation service to identify them. An experienced internet attorney can leverage sophisticated online investigations technology and legal techniques to help identify anonymous harassers. Common investigative tools and tactics include:
- Deep web advanced search tools, such as DNS lookups and WHOIS,
- Metadata tracing and analysis,
- Social media and IP traps,
- Website forensics and private investigator services, and
- John Doe lawsuits and subpoenas.
Work With an Experienced Online Harassment Attorney
It can feel overwhelming to collect and document extensive online harassment. When you work with an experienced online harassment attorney, they can help walk you through the process, organize your documentation, and ensure that the correct information is being gathered to put you in the best position possible for an eventual civil or criminal lawsuit.
How to Enlist the Help of a Legal Professional to File Online Harassment Charges in Pennsylvania
If you are looking to file a civil suit in Pennsylvania, you will want to engage an attorney. In particular, you will want to find an attorney with expertise in online harassment, cyberstalking, or cyberbullying.
One of the best ways to locate an online harassment lawyer in Pennsylvania is to search your local bar association. The Pennsylvania Bar Association has a free online lawyer referral service that you can use to find the right attorney for you.
We also recommend searching popular online databases such as Avvo, Martindale-Hubbel, and Lawyers.com, or reaching out to friends, family, or co-workers for referrals.
Work With Experienced Online Harassment Lawyers
At Minc Law, we dedicate our practice to internet-related issues, like online harassment, cyberstalking, and defamation.
We are a law firm that specializes in internet-related issues, meaning, we can represent clients in other states and be retained for online harassment matters in Pennsylvania. We have extensive experience representing clients not only across the U.S. but 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 guidance on how to handle your online harassment-related issue, you can reach out to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation by calling (216) 373-7706, speaking with a Chat representative, or filling out our contact form.