Tuesday 5 February 2013

Stopping Online Harassment and Bullying

The internet is a wonderful tool. Unfortunately it can be used for bad as well as for good. The information below is from Respect Me and the laws apply equally to adults as they do to children.    

When this technology is abused, or used to harass or threaten others, there may be legal consequences.  There are  four UK statute laws and one Scottish common law that are relevant to the use of IT in relation to bullying.  These are:
How these Acts can be related to bullying, and specifically to cyberbullying, is outlined below. If the bullying is based on sexual, racial or religious grounds, prosecution could be sought through anti-discriminatory laws.Protection from Harassment Act 1997This Act was passed following concerns that stalking was not dealt with effectively under the existing legislation.  The Act does not refer solely to stalking but also covers harassment in a wider sense.  The Act states that it is unlawful to cause harassment, alarm or distress by a course of conduct and states that ‘A person must not pursue a course of conduct, which:
  • amounts to harassment of another
  • he knows, or ought to know, amounts to harassment of the other.’
There is some anecdotal evidence that the police are more comfortable in bringing forward this law when dealing with issues of cyberbullying. The police have successfully used the Protection from Harassment Act to prosecute for the sending of offensive e-mails through the internet.  Such messages will also constitute an offence under the Malicious Communications Act.
Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994This Act defines a criminal offence of intentional harassment, which covers all forms, including sexual harassment.  A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he/she
  • uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour; or
  • displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.
Malicious Communications Act 1998/Telecommunications Act 1984Under this Act it is an offence to send an indecent, offensive or threatening letter, electronic communication or other article to another person.  Under section 43 of the Telecommunications Act 1984 it is a similar offence to send a telephone message which is indecent, offensive or threatening.Both these offences are punishable with up to six months imprisonment and/or a fine.The Malicious Communications offences are wider ranging, but under the Telecommunications offences, it is likely that the Police will use the former Act to bring a charge.
The Communications Act 2003The Communications Act 2003 is by far the most recent Act to be passed.  Section 127 states that a person is guilty of an offence if he/she
  • sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or
  • causes any such message or matter to be so
  • A person is guilty of an offence if, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that he/she knows to be false,
  • causes such a message to be sent; or
  • persistently makes use of a public electronic communications network
Breach of the PeaceBreach of the Peace is Scottish common law.  At present behaviour inScotland which might be described as harassment or stalking is usually prosecuted as a breach of the peace. This common law offence covers all behaviour (including single incidents) which causes, or is likely to cause:
  • Fear, alarm, upset or annoyance
  • When one or more persons conduct themselves in a riotous, or disorderly manner, anywhere, which alarms, annoys or disturbs other people
  • The offence can take place anywhere (a house, an office, a school or a public street)
  • The element of disturbance would be the most relevant to Cyberbullying as the behaviour does not have to be noisy but still of a nature that would cause concern to other people – harassment or stalking and bullying
The Courts recognise that breach of the peace can be serious and a life sentence is theoretically possible.  A sentence of eight years was recently imposed for the crime of Breach of the Peace.
It proves difficult to source evidence of charges being successfully brought against people who use new technology to bully.It is worth noting that the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland is twelve.  All organisations, including schools are covered by the laws stated above.  If an offence takes place in school it is still an offence.

More information can be found online. 

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