Cyberstalking needs more attention from law enforcement and legislators, says ABA House
The ABA House of Delegates passed a resolution Monday urging legislators and law enforcement to do more to fight cyberstalking and harassment.
The resolution passed overwhelmingly. Speaking in support of the resolution at the ABA Annual Meeting at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago, lawyer Roula Allouch said victims of online bullying or harassment are often targeted through text messages, attacked in group chats or threatened on social media platforms.
“Once something is said online, it can often be there forever. Unflattering images, defamatory lies and other misinformation influence almost every aspect of a person’s life, both professionally and personally,” said Allouch, who is of counsel with Graydon Law in Cincinnati.
She added that children can be particularly vulnerable to bullying and harassment.
“A young person can feel anxious and isolated,” Allouch said. “When we respond quickly and consistently to bullying behavior, we send a message both to the person who’s being bullied and to those who are dealing with bullying that the behavior is not acceptable.”
Resolution 504 asks lawmakers to enact or amend cyberstalking laws to include more stringent penalties and a private right of action for victims to bring claims against people who use social media or other technologies to stalk or harass them. The resolution was proposed by the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice; the Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities; the Commission on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity; and the Section of State and Local Government Law.
Some police departments lack the technology needed to investigate cyberstalking crimes, according to a report published ahead of the vote. The proponents of the resolution want law enforcement to educate their officers on cyberstalking and commit more resources to investigations.
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The report calls cyberstalking a “relatively new crime” that has grown over the past 20 years along with the exploding popularity of the internet, social media and other forms of online communication.
In a 2021 report, “The State of Online Harassment,” the Pew Research Center said four in 10 Americans had experienced some form of online harassment. A growing number of Americans had experienced some form of “severe harassment,” which, according to the report, includes sexual harassment, sustained harassment, physical threats and stalking.
A 2017 Pew study found that 7% of Americans were victims of cyberstalking, 10% had experienced physical threats and 6% had been sexually harassed online.
In 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act which includes measures on cybercrime and enforcement, according to the report. Federal interstate communications and stalking laws are used to prosecute cyberstalking crimes.
But also according to the report, there are “varying gaps in federal stalking and cyberstalking law,” and many state and local laws do not do enough to prevent severe online harassment.
“Although there are various local and federal laws that address stalking and some that are narrowly tailored to cyberstalking, many cases go unsolved and untouched,” the report states.
“Victims might often find too many roadblocks when seeking help,” Allouch said, adding that the resolution would seek to strengthen existing laws so law enforcement and prosecutors are better equipped to investigate the crimes.
Defendants in some cyberstalking cases have claimed the First Amendment shields them, the report adds.
The resolution recommends that lawmakers consider free speech issues when creating or amending new laws. But the report notes that the First Amendment “does not protect threatening and intimidating speech.”