When Social Media Becomes a Tool for Abuse and Harassment

In the twenty-first century, social media , such as Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and outlets, play a large role in people’s everyday lives. Social media is used as a tool to build a brand, reputation or image, and can connect people with similar interests and social circles. But what happens when that tool is used to tarnish reputations, or to harass or threaten another user?

Fortunately, California law recognizes that “abuse” can take many forms.  The Domestic Violence Prevention Act (“DVPA”) outlines the grounds for issuing a restraining order, including harassment, unwanted contact by phone, mail, or other means, and “disturbing the peace.”[1] California courts have interpreted this statute  to protect against unauthorized dissemination of information and/or photographs, and online threats and harassment. In addition, California specifically prohibits the intentional distribution of sexual photos of another person with intent to cause emotional distress (commonly known as “revenge porn”).[2] This type of abuse can have severe emotional, personal, and professional repercussions.

In the case of Amy Lee Philips and James Eugene Campbell Jr., the appellate court upheld a restraining order preventing Mr. Campbell from  posting photographs, videos, or information about Ms. Philips on any internet site, and to remove such postings from any such site over which he had control.[3] In another case, Marriage of Evilsizor & Sweeney, the court issued a restraining order prohibiting Mr. Sweeney from disseminating information that he downloaded from petitioner’s cell phone, and found that “disturbing the peace” by disseminating private text, email, and social media information can be a form of abuse under the DVPA.[4]

Further, technology may be used not only to harass and annoy, but also to unlawfully stalk and surveil another person. Online “check-ins” and other information gleaned from social media pages may be used to gather information about and monitor the victim. “Spyware” may be installed on computer devices in order to secretly monitor and gather information about computer use. There are many types of computer software programs and hardware devices which may be installed on the victim’s computer without the victim’s knowledge and without physical access to the computer. Online stalking is not only intrusive and disturbing, it can also put the victim in physical danger.

The remedies for such online harassment and stalking are not limited to restraining orders. Online harassment and stalking may also be a basis for a civil damages claim, such as the tort of stalking, domestic violence, intentional interference with contractual relations, and/or intentional infliction of emotional distress. Civil damages can include general damages, special damages, and punitive damages.[5] The court may also grant the prevailing plaintiff equitable relief, an injunction, costs, and reasonable attorney’s fees.

If you have been the victim of online harassment, you have rights. Contact ADZ Law LLP to consult with one of our knowledge attorneys about whether you may be entitled to a restraining order and/or civil damages.

 



[1] Family Code Section 6320(a)
[2] California penal code 647(j)(4)
[3] Amy Lee Philips v. James Eugene Campbell Jr., 2d Civil No. B263353 (Super. Ct. No. 15FL-0054), filed 8/23/2016
[4] In re Marriage of Evilsizor & Sweeney, 237 Cal. App. 4th 1416 (2015)
[5] California Civil Code section 3294.

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