Harassment by computer
is a crime in several U.S. states (see computer crime
). It is distinct from stalking
in that stalking typically requires two or more contacts, whereas harassment by computer may be a single incident. It is also different from regular harassment
, because the offense typically encompasses a range of crimes that would not be considered harassment if conducted in person.
Connecticut was the first state to pass a statute making it a criminal offense to harass someone by computer. Michigan and Arizona have also passed laws banning harassment by electronic means
, the offense is a Class 1 misdemeanor
The Virginia statute against harassment by computer, passed in 2000
, is worded very similarly to § 18.2-427
, which bans harassment "over any telephone or citizens band radio"
In a famous 2004
case, an Albemarle County, Virginia
man was charged with harassment by computer for pretending to be his ex-wife online and inviting men to her house, warning that she would play dumb but really wanted to have sex
Although the offense did not involve harassing the ex-wife, the statute was broadly worded enough to encompass the man's actions. In 2005
, a 13-year-old student was charged with harassment by computer for sending a death threats
to his sister and two other students through instant messages
The Virginia statute bans using a computer to communicate any "obscene, vulgar, profane, lewd, lascivious, or indecent language," while using such language in person remain legal in most contexts. The exception would be violations of the curse and abuse statute, a relatively narrowly defined offense In any case, harassment by computer is a Class 1 misdemeanor carrying jail time, while curse and abuse is a Class 3 misdemeanor, payable by a small fine.
The Virginia Bar Association News Journal weighed the strengths and weaknesses of the Virginia Computer Crimes Act, noting, "The 'harassment by computer' provision is probably the most vulnerable to a 'free speech defense'. . . . Although 'obscene speech ... can be banned,' the Supreme Court in Reno struck down provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) pertaining to minors because the terms 'indecent' and 'patently offensive' used in the statute were unconstitutionally vague"
The text of the provision reads:
- If any person, with the intent to coerce, intimidate, or harass any person, shall use a computer or computer network to communicate obscene, vulgar, profane, lewd, lascivious, or indecent language, or make any suggestion or proposal of an obscene nature, or threaten any illegal or immoral act, he shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.
- Bahrampour, Tara: Student, 13, Charged in Washington-Lee Scare, The Washington Post, May 27, 2005.
- Code of Virginia, § 18.2-152.7:1. Harassment by computer; penalty.
- Code of Virginia, § 18.2-416. Punishment for using abusive language to another.
- Code of Virginia, § 18.2-427. Use of profane, threatening or indecent language over public airways.
- Coffee, Gordon A. and Klein, Charles B.: Combating Cyber-Torts: Protections and Pitfalls of the Virginia Computer Crimes Act, Virginia Bar Association News Journal, Jan. 2003.
- Man Gets Two Years for Pretending to Be Ex-Wife Online, Associated Press, 2004.
- Rabinovitz, Jonathan: In Connecticut,harassment by computer is now a crime, New York Times, June 13, 1995.