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SEXUAL HARASSMENT ONLINE: ARE VICTIMS PROTECTED?
Cyberspace Law Seminar
Final Final Draft [First final draft]
March 31, 2006
Websites like MySpace, Friendster, and Facebook have become a cultural
phenomenon. These sites provide anyone who has access to the Internet the
ability to search for millions of people by name, age, area or interest.
MySpace alone had 28 million visitors in December 2005.1 The goal of these
sites is to foster an internet community that allows people to communicate
in a variety of ways, whether it is posting comments for friend, writing
an online blog, or posting pictures. With sites like these and the general
expansion of the internet’s communicative powers, however, comes potential
In March 2006, six men were arrested in Boulder, Colorado after raping a woman that they met through MySpace. The victim had never met these men outside the internet; she was only acquainted with them through seeing their pictures and knowing their first names on MySpace.2 In this case, MySpace was merely the catalyst for the illegal conduct that took place outside of the internet and was punishable with normal laws. The question then arises: what happens when inappropriate conduct takes place exclusively on the internet and never enters the “real world”? Is conduct that would be considered stalking or harassment if it took place outside the internet considered the same when it happens only on the internet? Does the anonymous nature of internet-based interactions confer more latitude to online perpetrators, or is the feeling of invulnerability on the other side the screen merely an illusion? Do victims of online harassment, regardless of the vicarious nature of the exchange, require substantive protection so that those who harass and abuse other users must be held accountable?
Current sexual harassment laws are not suited to deal with the burgeoning harassment taking place on the internet. In the internet world, anonymity and lack of proximity make it easy for people to harass victims without fear of legal ramifications. Internet harassment can become more damaging than conventional harassment because the internet allows people to quickly and easily disseminate derogatory material to potentially limitless numbers of people. The nature of the internet also encourages these harassment incidents to escalate into dangerous situations, as it is easy for perpetrators to locate and lure unsuspecting victims.
This paper will examine the current legislative and judicial responses to sexual harassment on the internet. It will also consider which principles of tort law can be exported to the issue of online harassment. Because the intersection of harassment laws and the nature of the internet as a public forum implicates First Amendment issues, this paper will consider whether laws restricting speech on the internet should be enforced at all, regardless of their harassing nature.
II. WHAT IS SEXUAL HARASSMENT?
Sexual harassment can encompass a number of areas, ranging from constant emailing to actual stalking and physical assault. The legal definition of harassment is “a course of conduct directed at a specific person that causes substantial emotional distress in such person and serves no legitimate purpose” or “words, gestures, and actions which tend to annoy, alarm and abuse (verbally) another person.”3 While this is a general notion of what harassment is, its nature can change depending on the situation in which it arises or depending on the laws that are being applied.
A. Sexual Harassment and Title VII
The most common type of sexual harassment occurs in the workplace and is defined by Title VII. Frequently, the harassment is of a quid pro quo nature, in which a supervisor conditions employment or advancement on sexual favors.4 These cases are fairly straight forward and do not usually occur in an online context. The second type of workplace harassment defined under Title VII is a hostile environment.5 Harassment leading to a hostile environment can include sexual innuendoes, offensive touching, rude gestures, and posting of obscene pictures. For this type of claim to be successful the harassment needs to be repeated, and the plaintiff needs to show that the employer was aware of the complaints and ignored them. If the employer acts to stop the harassment, in the workplace, this evidence may be used to mitigate the damages.
B. Sexual Harassment and Tort Claims
Plaintiffs may also bring harassment claims under various tort doctrines.
A tort is a “legal wrong committed upon the person or property independent
of a contract.”6 Claims brought under an intentional tort cause of action
are most likely to receive a favorable result. Intentional torts include
defamation, invasion of privacy, or intentional infliction of emotional
distress.7 To show intent a plaintiff must prove that the alleged tortfeaser
was aware of foreseeable recipients of the challenged communication.8 Given
the anonymity of the internet and the breadth of its audience, this could
be a challenging claim to prove. In particular, it would be difficult to
prove foreseeable recipients of communications posted to bulletin boards
or on websites that are not directed at the plaintiff or any general public
area of the Internet.
For the plaintiff to prove a case of assault, no actual contact needs to have taken place; instead the plaintiff only needs to have been placed in apprehension that an imminent harmful contact would occur.9 A claim of assault rests on whether the plaintiff suffers a mental or emotional injury rather than a physical one. Because victims and perpetrators of online sexual assault are separated in time and space, it is doubtful that a plaintiff could make a compelling argument that he or she was afraid of imminent harmful contact. The difficulty of proving this claim based on internet communications highlights one of the issues with harassment online.
With the anonymity of the internet it is hard to prove that a person would have apprehension of harmful contact. Anonymity leads many users to feel untouchable, even invincible, on the internet; there is a pervasive idea that, just like Las Vegas, anything that goes on in cyberspace will stay there. As the internet expands, however, the ability to physically locate the people behind the screen is becoming easier. Consequently, a claim that someone was placed in “imminent apprehension” of harm after a threat was made on the internet will become more viable.
While victims of internet sexual harassment may succeed on an assault claim, it is unlikely that a close cousin of assault, battery, will provide similar assistance. The tort of battery requires that the perpetrator make actual contact with the victim, without the victim’s consent. The requirement for physical contact makes it unlikely that this will be applied to any type of harassment that takes place solely on the internet.10
Intentional infliction of emotional distress occurs when “one who, by extreme and outrageous conduct, intentionally or recklessly causes severe emotional distress to another, is subject to liability for such emotional distress and if bodily harm results from it, for such bodily harm.”11 Liability for this claim is very difficult to establish, as it requires a plaintiff to establish the perpetrator’s intent, the act, the victim’s injury, and finally the causation.
Most of the difficulties in bringing such a claim center on the intent element, as juries are instructed to find liability for behavior that is so obnoxious, rude, and gratuitously cruel as to go beyond all claims of decency.12 This requirement is so stringent that not even off-color sexual innuendoes meet the standard.13 However, claims have been sustained where a bill collector has sent harassing letters and called at all hours of the night. What is interesting is that a court could find this type of behavior to be analogous to severe harassment on the net.14
Tort law is an area where common law doctrines need to catch up to a changing landscape, especially in regards to technology. Analyzing the internet and its capabilities, an argument can be made that the ability of information to reach a large audience instantaneously should make the stringent requirements for this doctrine easier to meet, as violations have the chance for much greater harm. Courts, however, have been reluctant to reconstrue any common law torts to accommodate a new medium.
Defamation and libel can also be potential weapons for victims of online sexual harassment. The doctrine of defamation shifts the focus from a physical injury to a reputational injury. A defamation claim uniformly requires the publication of the defamatory statement to some third person, whether by spoken or written word, or by gesture, picture or action.15 Such an approach would encompass all postings on the internet in addition to messages that are sent directly to the victim, making this tort a particularly powerful weapon against online sexual harassment. The power of this tort is accentuated by the fact that in a defamation claim, the plaintiff does not even need to be directly aware of the defamatory statements as long as damage to reputation can be established.16
One possible stumbling block for victims of sexual harassment is that in cases of defamation on the internet it has been hard for the victims to hold the providers liable unless they “knew or had reason to know” of the defamatory statements.17 Proving knowledge in an online context is particularly problematic because often the publisher of the claims remains completely anonymous. In such a situation, a plaintiff’s only course of action is against the web host. It is also a safe assumption that, if providers are held to a higher standard, derogatory or harassing messages will have a harder time finding a home.
The court in Stratton Oakmont, Inc. and Daniel Porush v. Prodigy Services, Co. found in favor of the plaintiff for defamation, holding that the service provider, Prodigy, was the “publisher” of the alleged libelous statements. In this case, an anonymous poster on Prodigy’s website made false claims about an investor. The court found that Prodigy exposed itself to liability by claiming to its members that it controlled the content that was posted on its bulletin boards. Furthermore, Prodigy’s guidelines stated that these controls were implemented through an automatic screening program. The court determined that “the simple fact that Prodigy has uniquely arrogated to itself the role of determining what is proper for its members to post and read on its bulletin board” was enough to hold them liable.18
This precedent was controversial because, while it allowed for liability in this case, it based finding fault on the fact that the company attempted to limit obscene and objectionable material. Congress also found the implications of this to be objectionable and responded by passing legislation to overrule this case. 47 U.S.C.A. § 230 states that:
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of (a) any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability or material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.19While service providers benefit from this legislation and are not penalized for actions taken in good faith, victims of online sexual harassment, unfortunately, pay the price. In addition to being bereft of a legal claim tailored to the unique circumstances of harassment online, victims now have even less opportunity to bring forth claims, as service providers are out of the picture.
C. Affirmative Defenses for Tort-Based Sexual Harassment
Consent and assumption of risk are two affirmative defenses that could be used in a harassment case. Consent can serve as a defense if a defendant can show that that a plaintiff responded to any communications or did not relay that the advances were unwarranted. Some users have even asserted that women using the internet accept the risk that they might be harassed, stalked, or offended. Proponents of this view suggest that chat lines, newsgroups, and more specifically, singles pages, invite harassment, and that warning pages on these sites alerts people to the potential for harassment21. It could be argued that when women put up pages on MySpace they are assuming the risk that they might receive harassing messages, especially when these pages contain revealing photographs or other personal information.
III. CRIMINAL STATUTES AND INTERNET HARASSMENT
In the last ten years states have become much more proactive in the battle
against online sexual harassment, enacting statutes that target harassment
on the internet. In 1996 only three states had established laws that incorporated
crimes on the internet. Today forty-five states have enacted online
harassment laws.22 With the increased responses by state legislatures,
victims of internet harassment have additional avenues with which to pursue
The Iowa statute, for example, states that a person commits harassment when: with the intent to intimidate annoy or alarm another person the person communicates with that person by telephone, telegraph, writing or via electronic communication without legitimate purpose and in a manner likely to cause the other person annoyance or harm.24 This definition encompasses both subjective and objective tests to determine if harassment has occurred. The subjective test requires that the harasser have “intent” and the objective test requires the harasser to be “likely to cause the other person annoyance or harm.”25 The Iowa statute, however, is vague with respect to what actually constitutes harassment, providing much discretion to the court. Because the court’s only guidance is to state that the standard for determining harassment is that the challenged act must be “likely to cause the other person annoyance or harm,” it is up to the court to determine what constitutes harassment.
Illinois’ statute, on the other hand, is much clearer about what constitutes cyberstalking and clearly defines the offense. It states:
A person commits cyberstalking when he or she, knowingly and without lawful justification, on at least 2 separate occasions, harasses another person through the use of electronic communication and: (1) at any time transmits a threat of immediate or future bodily harm, sexual assault, confinement, or restraint and the treat is directed towards that person or a family member of that person or (2) places that person or a family member of that person in reasonable apprehension of immediate or future bodily harm, sexual assault, confinement, or restraint.26Illinois provides explicit guidelines on what constitutes harassment, leaving little room for confusion in the eyes of the court. The statute’s clarity also communicates to law enforcement what is enforceable and how to determine what constitutes harassment to a potential victim. The specificity of this statute makes it a strong model for future legislators.
IV. PERSONAL JURISDICTION ISSUES
As with any legislation that deals with online conduct, a number of potential personal-jurisdiction issues arise. It is probable that harassing a person in a state will establish enough minimum contacts to bring the defendant under jurisdiction where the harassment takes place and is filed. To be subject to personal jurisdiction in a particular state, a defendant needs to have the knowledge that their messages will be published in that state. Given the internets far-reaching nature, such a standard may allow jurisdiction in any state. Enforcing any court decision regarding harassment that takes place internationally, however, as enforcement of any court decision would be almost impossible.
V. PROBLEMS WITH APPLYING
BRICK AND MORTAR LAWS TO THE INTERNET:
ANALYSIS OF CURRENT LAWS AND THEIR EFFECT ON INTERNET HARASSMENT.
A. Employment Cases
Workplace sexual harassment
can take place over internet chat lines or via email, causing new problems
with to apply Title VII laws. For an employees to prevail under a Title
VII third-party hostile-work-environment claim they need to show that they
were subjected to conduct of a sexual nature, that the conduct was unwelcome,
and that it was severe and pervasive enough to alter the condition of employment
environment.28 Internet sexual harassment situations present different
issues than traditional notions of harassment, raising the question: can
traditional work harassment laws be applied to an event effected solely
through the internet, with no prompting for an employer?
One point that has become an issue with the widespread use of the internet in public libraries is whether employers can be held liable when employees of the library are exposed to pornography as a result of patron’s internet use.29 The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) states on their website that libraries that do not use blocking software will not be held liable for sexual harassment in the library.30 The ACLU states that sexual harassment laws only apply to employees and not to patrons. The remote chance that a patron would expose an employee to pornographic images does not constitute harassment. This issue again raises the question about what the appropriate balance is between preserving individuals’ freedom to search on the internet and protecting victims from harassment. The ACLU contends that blocking software is, by its nature, overly intrusive and will discourage people from visiting legitimate websites.
Another example of issues with workplace internet sexual harassment is found in Blakey v. Continental Airlines. In this case, messages posted by employees on a work related internet site gave rise to employer liability for a hostile workplace sexual harassment claim.31 The plaintiff had worked for Continental Airlines since 1984 and was a highly qualified commercial pilot. According to the plaintiff, in 1991 she began to file systematic complaints about male co-workers, specifically complaining about pornographic photographs and vulgar gender-based comments directed at her that appeared in the workplace. Two years later, the plaintiff filed a sexual harassment suit under Title VII.
In the midst of this litigation the plaintiff’s continued to publish a series of gender-biased messages some of which she alleged were false and defamatory. In a four-month period in 1995 a number of male employees posted insulting remarks about Blakey on the pilot’s on-line computer bulletin board. This bulletin board was accessible to all Continental Pilots and crew members. The maintenance and running of the message board and the whole Continental Airlines webpage, however, was outsourced to another company. Continental Airlines argued that it could not be held responsible for the messages on this website because the harassment was not taking place under its roof and therefore did not fall under Title VII. However the court found that although an electronic bulletin board might not have physical location within an airport terminal, hanger, or aircraft, it might nonetheless have been so closely related to workplace environment and beneficial to the employer that continuation of harassment on the forum should be regarded as part of the workplace and that the employer had a duty to remedy the harassment.32
The court analogized the bulletin board on the internet to a regular bulletin board in an office, noting that on a physical bulletin board an employer would have a duty to remedy any sexual harassment taking place. This begs the question: what happens if one extends the forum, such that the messages take place not on an official message board, but a private one, yet that private message board is exclusive to Continental employees? In such a situation, would the employer still have a duty to take action or is the scenario more analogous to employees conversing in their homes?
Drawing these lines is one of the challenges facing courts and lawmakers when responding to internet-based situations. A common approach is to analogize every cyber harassment situation to a brick and mortar one, then base a decision on the anticipated real world”results. The problem with this approach is that, with respect to the dissemination of information, the internet functions on a whole different the real world. Every employee who was able to post a message on the official Continental Airlines webpage, for example, had the potential to reach an even larger audience by posting his or her message to a public website where his or her message would not be confined to only Continental employees. When the court addresses this type of situation with a real-world analysis, it fails to take into account the internet’s dramatic impact on the spread of the harassment and restricts its abilities to mitigate the concomitant ramifications
Perhaps the answer rests in the simple distinction that, while Continental Airlines had the power to shut down the message board on their own site, the company had no such power in a public site, employees’ First Amendment rights become much more meaningful because a public site is analogous to a public space, the realm afforded the highest degree of First Amendment protection in the physical world. Such a response may seem unfair to the employee being harassed as the same damage and uncomfortable work environment is being applied as before, but now there is no legal redress under Title VII. In such a situation, a person’s ability to seek redress through civil claims becomes essential. Given the absence of any federally based recourse, plaintiffs have no choice but to turn to tort law and adapt their claims to accommodate the unique nature of the internet.
B. Non-Employment Cases
In U.S. v. Baker a
student at the University of Michigan wrote stories for a sex stories newsgroup.33
Baker’s stories revolved around very violent themes, including rape, torture,
and murder. In one of these stories Baker wrote about one of his classmates
at the University of Michigan. This student became aware of the story through
a friend and contacted the university. Baker was later arrested for both
the bulletin board posting and emails he had exchanged with an internet
acquaintance discussing raping women and girls. Baker argued that his words
and stories were pure fantasy and the fact that a real name was used did
not make it any less of a fantasy. The court eventually dismissed the case
after determining that Baker’s messages posed no real threat to the student.
This case polarizes many of the issues regarding sexual harassment on the internet. On one side, people who prioritize freedom of speech above all else argue that people should be allowed to express themselves and should not be curtailed even when someone is discussing actual people are named in public forums. On the other hand, others would argue that when one commits words to writing, one is moving beyond mere fantasy or free speech, particularly when another person is affected. In Baker, Baker published detailed plans on how to kidnap real people. One could argue that if this does not pose a real threat, then little will. Such reasoning would entail that the only kind of punishable harassment would be that which is emailed directly to a plaintiff. Should any public posting whether it be on bulletin boards or web pages like MySpace be free of constraints because its public nature enables it to fall under the protection of the First Amendment? There needs to be a balance and a clear line needs to be drawn between someone’s right to free speech and another person’s right not to be harassed either directly or indirectly through the internet.
VI. Recommended Changes
There is no doubt that
harassment online needs to be curbed and there needs to be a way to exact
liability on those who blatantly abuse the internet to harass people. States
have come a long way in incorporating online harassment laws to ensure
redress for these egregious examples. However issues remain in the gray
area of determining what should truly constitute harassment in an online
Some would argue that provides people more leeway in their online actions because of the anonymity and reduced threat that the internet confers on its users. When someone communicates online there is often a much freer attitude toward what is and isn’t acceptable. This feeling is a natural extension of the freedom the internet provides. Participants in cyberspace tend to experience a heightened sense of invulnerability: a feeling often experienced by both the person receiving messages and the one leaving them. This phenomenon can lead to messages that would be intolerable in the real world having little or no meaning or effect on the internet.
However, a counter argument can be made for a near opposite reaction. Because the internet allows for such a broad distribution of information for such a cheap price, harassment online the potential for harm increases exponentially in comparison to anything exchanged between people in the real world. The internet also allows for the storage and cataloging of information, making it possible for people to access information long after it is initially posted. Finally, the feeling of security and anonymity in the internet is a false one; if anything the internet makes it easier to look find people and to potentially have horrific results like the aforementioned tragedy that happened in Boulder, Colorado.
Even in the past five years, the internet has evolved to a much more dangerous entity for potential harassment. In the past the notion of invulnerability and anonymity behind your computer screen was more accurate reflection of being online, but as the internet has become increasingly prolific so has the danger. Due to the ever-expanding venues for discourse, the dangers of serious harassment have mushroomed.
The solutions to harassment on the internet must come from a number of sources. First states enacting laws encompassing harassment online is essential. Laws should be narrowly tailored, like the Illinois statute that gives specific criteria for what will establish harassment. Effective state legislation will give law enforcement the tools it needs to efficiently prosecute harassment. Secondly, tort laws should be applied to the internet and common law doctrines should be adapted to the new technology. By applying these doctrines to online harassment cases, courts will provide victims who are in many instances suffering the same consequences as their real-world counterparts an opportunity for redress.
Providers of these services themselves should be more proactive. While many services already provide a grievance center to remove potentially harmful and harassing language from their websites this should become a commonplace option. Sites like Facebook and MySpace have become much more active in curtailing abusive conduct on their sites after a number of incidents involving stalking, or attempts to meet underage children. Bulletproof policing of sites like this, however, is impossible.
The final responsibility falls on the users. The internet is unique in that people can curb potential harm by being smart and knowledgeable about the dangers that occur online. People have to be aware of who they give out their information to and what persona they put forth on the internet. Regardless of the information they give out or the contacts they make, however, all internet users have the potential to be victims of harassment. Because of this, the availability of some form of redress, whether it be criminal or civil, is critical.
Online stalking and harassing is a growing problem on the internet. Almost every state has responded to the danger by enacting legislation while courts have tried to apply common law doctrines to these new situations. While laudable, these efforts are only a beginning. More needs to be done to protect victims; clearly defining the issue and taking action to curb potential abuse of the internet as a communication medium are the next steps.
1 Associated Press, MySpace Used to Track Down Rape and Robbery Suspects, Mar. 26, 2006, http://www.cnn.com/2006/US/03/25/my.space.ap/index.html.
2 These sites have become popular spots for predators to pick up underage girls and assault them. In 2006 a Connecticut man was accused of raping a 14 year old after meeting her on MySpace, and in Long Island a man found the work address of a sixteen-year-old girl and lured her to a parking lot where he sexually molested her.
3 BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY 315 (7th Ed. 2001)
4 Quid pro quo harassment occurs where an employee’s work benefits, pay, promotions, bonuses, etc., are denied or granted based on an employee submitting to a superior’s request for sexual favors. See Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57 (1986) (affirming both quid pr quo and hostile work environment harassment as violations of Title VII based on sex discrimination).
5 ROTHSTEIN A. MARK, CRAVER B. CHARLES, SCHROEDER P. ELINOR, SHOBEN W. ELAINE, EMPLOYMENT LAW (3rd Ed. 2005).
6 BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY (7th Ed. 2001)
7 BLACK’S LAW DICTIONARY (7th Ed. 2001)
8 RICHARD A. EPSTEIN, TORTS § 1.2 (1st ed. 1999).
9 See RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS § 21 (herein, after RST). A defendant is subject to liability if “(a) he acts intending to cause a harmful or offensive contact with the person of the other or a third person, or an imminent apprehension of such a contact, and (b) the other is thereby put in such imminent apprehension.” Id.
10 EPSTEIN, supra note 8 at § 1.7.
11 RST § 46.
12 EPSTEIN, supra note 8 at 18.
13 Burlington Ind., Inc. v. Ellerth, 524 U.S. 742 (1998).
14 George v. Jordan Marsh Co. 268 N.E. 915 (Mass. 1971).
15 RST § 77.
16 See EPSTEIN, supra note 8. For damage to reputation to be proven, there must be an altering of the relationship between the third party that sees the statement and the plaintiff. Plaintiff must lose some benefit, such as marriage, membership in a club, a promotion, etc.
17 Cubby, Inc. v. CompuServe, Inc., 776 F.Supp. 135 (S.D.N.Y. 1991).
18 Stratton Oakmont, Inc. and Daniel Porush v. Prodigy Serv., Co. 1995 WL 323710 (N.Y.Sup.Ct. 1995).
19 47 U.S.C.A. § 230 (2005).
20 Daniel v. Dow Jones, Inc.,
520 N.Y.S. 2d 334 (1987)
22 Whoa: Working to Halt Online Abuse, available at http://www.haltabuse.org/resources/laws/index.shtml (last visited Mar. 25, 2006).
23 Even where a state does not have the internet written directly into the statute courts have found current harassment laws broad enough to encompass the internet. See People v. Munn, 688 N.Y.S. 2d 384 (N.Y.City Crim. Ct., 1999).
2424 IOWA STAT. ANN. 708.7.1a.(1) (West 2005) (emphasis added).
25 Court has often held that because it is hard to determine a defendants intent with direct proof, “it may be inferred from the defendant’s acts and surrounding circumstances.” State v. True 190 N.W.2d 405, 406-07 (Iowa 1971).
26 ILL. STAT. ANN. 720 ILCS 5//12-7.5 (West 2005).
27 Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844 (1997).
28 Id. at 836.
29 See Internet Pornography in the Library: Can the Public Library Employer Be Liable for Third-Party Sexual Harassment When a Client Displays Internet Pornography to Staff?, 65 BROOK L. REV. 827 (1999).
30 American Civil Liberties Union, American Civil Liberties Union Freedom Network, Censorship in a Box, available at http://www.aclu.org/privacy/speech/15448pub19980825.html#questions> (last visited Mar. 26, 2006).
31 Blakey v. Continental Airlines, 751 A.2d 538 (NJ 2000).
32 Id. at 549
33 U.S. v. Baker, 890 F.Supp. 1375 (1995)