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How can posting insulting comments that aren't sent to their subject constitute cyberbullying/harassment, instead of defamation?

Los Angeles, CA |

The media often refer to leaving insulting or unflattering comments on social networks as "cyberbullying."

Like this case, where a girl falsely wrote on Facebook that another girl had herpes:

But cyberbullying is harassment that takes place on the internet. And harassment requires repeated, unwanted contact with the subject of one's speech; however, leaving comments in a place that is not associated with the subject of one's speech, like a Facebook profile that does not belong to the subject, is not contacting the subject. At most, leaving comments seems like defamation, and even then only if it's a false assertion of fact.

Writing "X is ugly" on a profile that belongs to Y cannot be cyberbullying, right?

Attorney Answers 3


You have oversimplified the issue. Cyber bullying is harassment in a particular forum, I.e. the Internet, and it can have widespread impact. So it doesn't necessarily matter whose wall you post it on.

Please note that I am answering this question as a service through Avvo but not as your attorney and no attorney-client relationship is established by this posting. An attorney-client relationship can only be established through signing a Fee Agreement and paying the necessary advanced fees.

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But your reasoning eliminates defamation entirely. By saying that a comment posted somewhere on the internet is the functional equivalent to a message to some particular person who is not directly associated with wherever you left that comment, a purely civil matter (defamation) now becomes a criminal matter (harassment). The law should not require us to be nice. If a teenager posts "I hate X" on her Facebook Wall, which is visible to X, all that teenager has done is publish an unflattering opinion, which prior to this "cyberbullying" hysteria wasn't even actionable as defamation because ugliness is purely subjective and not factual. But now, because X is susceptible to depression and kills herself, we call it "cyberbullying" and make it criminal harassment. That should only be harassment if the comment were sent as a message to the subject, or left in a place where the subject was sure to see it, like a profile that belongs to X. A teenager should be able to have opinions, even mean ones.

Charles Richard Perry

Charles Richard Perry


No, it doesn't. Something can constitute defamation and cyberbullying. The fact that it is one does not necessarily preclude it from being the other. You are of course entitled to your opinion of what the law "should be," but that is quite different from what the law "is."


Your position is a reasonable one, but not necessarily the one that will be followed by officials. I agree that a single instance of posting an insulting comment should be protected under the First Amendment. Repeated instances might not be protected. If charged or sued, make sure to get counsel in your area with experience in raising constitutional claims.

Contact me at 248-399-6930 for a free consultation. You and I do not have an attorney-client relationship formed by our communications on this website. Advice given by me on this website is general advice based on partial information. You should not rely on any advice given without first hiring a lawyer in the area where the case is pending, and providing that lawyer with full information.

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Generally speaking, posting on a Facebook wall is different from having a private conversation. The contents of the Facebook post show up on other users' news feeds and are readily viewable by others. Whether this would constitute harassment really depends on the specific facts. For example, say User X posts about User Y on User Z's wall. Will User Y's news feed alert him/her to the posting? Is there evidence suggesting User X intended for User Y to discover it? What are the post's likely effects upon User Y? What is the sum total of the interactions between Users X & Y? Harassment is very fact specific, and needs to take into account the entirety of the interactions, their purpose, and their effect. If you are concerned about a possible harassment action, I recommend contacting an attorney who specializes in this area for a personalized consultation.

Ryan T. Darby practices landlord-tenant law and civil litigation. This response is intended for informational purposes only and doesn't create an attorney-client relationship. (In other words, Ryan doesn't become your lawyer just by responding to your questions.)

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