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Social Media Woes

Since the world charged optimistically into the internet boom of the late 90's and early 00's, popular sites have come and gone - but the basic ways in which we use the internet have remained remarkably constant. People shop, show off, share expertise and, seemingly more than anything else, let fly their opinions, often anonymously. In doing so, many seem to forget the manners they were (hopefully) taught growing up, the basic social niceties of communicating with strangers, and how to navigate the divide between disagreements and insults. These virtual attacks too often have real world consequences: hurt feelings, damaged reputations, physical attacks, even suicide.

School cyberbullying
Kids can be cruel, and social media provides bullies with 24/7/365 access to their targets. Thankfully the Florida legislature has established some basic legal protections for "any student or employee of a public K-12 educational institution". Statute 1006.147, "Bullying and harassment prohibited", covers actions taken not only in school, but anywhere, and includes the following language:

"Cyberbullying" means bullying through the use of technology or any electronic communication, which includes, but is not limited to, any transfer of signs, signals, writing, images, sounds, data, or intelligence of any nature transmitted in whole or in part by a wire, radio, electromagnetic system, photoelectronic system, or photooptical system, including, but not limited to, electronic mail, Internet communications, instant messages, or facsimile communications. Cyberbullying includes the creation of a webpage or weblog in which the creator assumes the identity of another person, or the knowing impersonation of another person as the author of posted content or messages, if the creation or impersonation creates any of the conditions enumerated in the definition of bullying. Cyberbullying also includes the distribution by electronic means of a communication to more than one person or the posting of material on an electronic medium that may be accessed by one or more persons, if the distribution or posting creates any of the conditions enumerated in the definition of bullying.

That is a lot to take in (and there is much more in the full statute) but the point is clear: bullying, cyber or otherwise, will not be tolerated. Note that the statute only covers public schools; private schools are left to work things out for themselves.

Of course all of the careful planning in the world is meaningless if you or a loved one is a victim of online harassment. Not long ago, a girl in Texas committed suicide after relentless social media attacks. This is a far-too-common scenario, and you can read about some of the most notorious cases here.

Not just in schools
A 2014 Pew Research Center study showed that 40% of all adult internet users had experienced some form of online harassment, from name-calling to stalking to sexual harassment, with 15% of these feeling that their reputations had been damaged as a result. In the professional arena, responsible businesses know to establish a plan to ensure that the company's social media accounts - as well as those of their employees - stay respectful. Recently The Business Journals provided list of "7 key guidelines to crafting a social media policy", and number two on their list is of particular interest:

Encourage employees to be respectful on social media. They should avoid threatening, discriminating or harassing statements... The policy language should be specific and reference any appropriate company harassment and discrimination policies.

Creating and having employees sign off on a well-thought out and written social media policy is a wise step for any business, and can help protect you legally in the event that a rogue employee engages in harassing behavior from company social media accounts, or even via their personal accounts.

Next steps
The legal ramifications of cyberbullying are evolving all of the time. Keeping in mind that Facebook is a mere 14 years old, Twitter is 11, and Instagram only 7, and that the legal system can be extraordinary lethargic on a good day, it is remarkable that most states have passed anti-cyberbullying laws. And with each passing year, legal precedents are being established for personal injury, libel, and other cyberbullying-related crimes. If you or a loved one has suffered at the hands of cyber bullies, the experienced attorneys at the the Blaut Weiss Law Group have more than 60 years of combined personal injury and property damage experience that can be put to work for you. Schedule a free consultation at www.blautweiss.com/contact.php.

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