Online harassment: The new legal landscape

Harassment and intimidation don’t have to take place in person. The anonymous nature of the internet often makes it easier for people to harass or intimidate others through the use of violent or obscene language. Many who would shy away from a confrontation in person are willing to speak harshly or cruelly from the safety of their keyboard.

A 2017 Pew Research Center Study found that 41% of American adults have experienced online harassment, and 10% of Americans have received physical threats online.[1] These types of threats and harassment, even if sent over the internet, are illegal in Virginia, and there may be penalties involved.

“Any person who uses obscene, vulgar, profane, lewd, lascivious, or indecent language, or makes any suggestion or proposal of an obscene nature, or threatens an illegal or immoral act with the intent to coerce, intimidate, or harass any person, over any telephone or citizens band radio, in this Commonwealth, is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.”[2]  While the text of this statue only says “telephone or CB Radio,” as of July 2011, the statute expanded the definition of “telephone” to include “any electronically transmitted communication producing a visual or electronic message that is received or transmitted by cellular telephone or other wireless communications device.”[3]

Class 1 misdemeanors are punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500 – or both.[4]

The words in question don’t necessarily have to be “obscene.” The statute also prohibits threats and illegal or immoral acts.  Under the statute, a threat can be any statement a reasonable recipient would interpret as a threat.[5]  Any potential obscenity will also be considered in the context of the relationship between the individuals involved, and the person making the statements must also intend to coerce, intimidate, or harass the recipient. So while repeated phone calls may be annoying, they may not rise to the level of harassment unless you can prove the intent of the person making them.

While threats and harassment on the internet may feel less serious because there are screens between the harasser and the harassed, words online can have serious consequences in the real world.  Due to the inherently public – and permanent – nature of electronic communication, remember to carefully consider whatever you send out on the internet.  The penalty for failing to do so could be severe.  And the proof is right there on the recipient’s electronic device.

If you have been threatened or harrassed online, call Allen & Allen today for a free consultation, at 866-388-1307.




[3] Id.


[5] Alexander v. Commonwealth, No. 0126-12=4, 2013 Va. App. Lexis 137 (Ct. of Appeals Apr. 30, 2013).