Restraining orders can provide a concrete remedy against persistent online abuse. If you decide to pursue a restraining order, be prepared for a multistep judicial process. You will need to present convincing evidence of both the abusive conduct and the harm brought about by the perpetrator’s actions. You will have to show that you will suffer irreparable injury unless a restraining order is issued to limit contact. Keep in mind that you will generally not be able to remain anonymous when seeking a restraining order, in part because the perpetrator will need to be informed of whom they are restrained from contacting. A restraining order is a court order requiring a person to do (or not do) certain things. In the context of online abuse, a restraining order prevents the perpetrator from further contacting and harassing the victim.
The burden to show that a restraining order is necessary is placed on the individual making the complaint (i.e. the victim of online abuse). Generally when getting a restraining order, the individual making the complaint must show that immediate and irreparable injury, loss, or damage will result to them if the order is not issued. A victim seeking a restraining order based on the complaint of cyber harassment must demonstrate that the harasser’s conduct:
- is knowing or willful;
- is repeated (such that it forms a “course of conduct”); and
- places a reasonable person in fear for his safety or causes a reasonable person to suffer emotional distress.
Courts are very reluctant to ever issue a restraining order that limits speech. The plaintiff will be expected to show that they are seeking to restrain conduct – not speech.
If the victim is seeking a restraining order against an online harasser, the victim must provide proof of repeated abuse (ie, “course of conduct”) and of the harm suffered in the face of such conduct. The victim should document any proof showing that the abuse would continue absent a restraining order (for example, any communication from the perpetrator indicating intent to continue the abuse).
Though it might feel counterintuitive, documenting online harassment—saving emails, voicemails, screenshots, and hyperlinks — is critically important.
Documenting online abuse provides a record of what’s happened, tracks available information about the perpetrators, and alerts you and others to abuse patterns and escalations in harmful behavior. Documentation can help facilitate conversations with friends and family, and it is absolutely critical if you decide to escalate abuse with social media platforms, alert your employer, report abuse to law enforcement, or pursue legal action against an abuser.
When documenting instances of harassment, ensure that you’re saving all relevant evidence and not just the evidence that paints you in a favorable light. For example, if you contributed offensive dialogue or heated language to an online exchange that you’re planning to document, be sure to include those aspects of the exchange, too. Though you may regret having said certain things, a failure to document all aspects of your harassment could end up harming you if you ever end up in court. You don’t have to prove you’ve reacted perfectly at every step in order to pursue your harasser.
In general, the police are able to respond when a crime has been committed. For that reason, they may be better positioned to respond to the following forms of online abuse:
- You’ve received or been named in direct threats of violence (threats that suggest a time, place, or location are more likely to be taken seriously by law enforcement).
- An online abuser has published nonconsensual images of you.
- You’ve been stalked via electronic communication (see below).
- You know the identity of your online harasser and wish to seek a restraining order.
You may be asked to answer detailed questions about the online harassment you’ve experienced and provide as much detail as possible. You may also be asked to present evidence, so it’s critically important to document abusive content because it can disappear quickly (if the abuser deletes it or the platform takes it down).
Filing a police report is important because it can initiate a criminal investigation. It can also help you prove that the harassment made you fear for your safety and that the harasser was engaging in a “course of conduct” (i.e., harassing you repeatedly rather than just once), which can be helpful should you decide to pursue a criminal or civil case against the harasser.
Law enforcement is more likely to intervene if a crime has been committed. However, the reality is that, when it comes to online harassment, the burden of educating local law enforcement about existing cyber laws often lies with the victim. For that reason, you may want to look up your state’s cyber laws and have them in hand when you interact with law enforcement.
Filing a police report does not always result in immediate action or relief. There are various reasons for this. Sometimes a hateful online message falls within the realm of protected speech, and the law doesn’t apply. Sometimes local law enforcement has not been adequately trained to respond to cyber harassment — an area of policing that continues to evolve. Sometimes the police officer handling your case may be unfamiliar with the online platforms where the harassment occurred. Law enforcement officials who are not well versed in technology and online harm may not treat online harassment as significant or urgent.
Law enforcement can help you bring criminal charges if you report a possible crime. Law enforcement can expedite search warrants with online platforms to obtain evidence of harm, which is not something a lawyer can do unless you are bringing a civil lawsuit.
Because laws governing online harassment vary state to state, it is critical, if you’re considering pursuing legal action, to seek the advice of a lawyer who practices in your state. A responsible lawyer, experienced in online harassment, can help you decide whether or not to pursue civil or criminal action, engage law enforcement, seek an order of protection, or advocate with social media platforms or other technology companies. That said, obtaining legal advice can be costly.
There are many reasons you may decide to contact a lawyer when experiencing online harassment. A lawyer may be able to help you with: nonconsensual intimate imagery, defamation, true threats of violence, cyberstalking, and severe cases of cyber harassment involving a “course of conduct” (i.e. ongoing behaviors from the same perpetrator) can merit a lawyer’s involvement, along with a number of other harassing behaviors that might cause you substantial emotional distress.
However, there are many forms of online harassment that a lawyer can’t necessarily help you with. While most abusive tactics are exhausting, emotionally taxing, and even traumatic for the target (not to mention ethically reprehensible), they are not necessarily illegal. For example, a person who is calling you offensive or hateful names on social media is probably engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment — in which case, a lawyer is not likely to get involved. Even threats of violence, which aren’t always protected by the First Amendment, can present a gray area online: the legal definition of a “true threat” is narrow and can be challenging to apply in an online context, where discerning a speaker’s intent can be difficult.