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Wisconsin laws and the consequences of cyberbullying

Computer technology and electronic devices offer Milwaukee residents the opportunity to communicate any time from almost any place. Online expression and criticism have legal limitations when someone else is harmed by the words, images or videos sent through texts, emails and posts. In Wisconsin, an individual who sends threatening electronic messages can be charged with an internet crime.

Cyberbullying is frequently a personal attack. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service reported the results of a 2013 survey of high school students, in which 15 percent of respondents had been targets of cyberbullying during the previous year. The National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates 9 percent of students in grades six through 12 have experienced cyberbullying.

Unlawful use of computerized communication systems is a Wisconsin Class B misdemeanor, punishable by a jail term as long as 90 days and a maximum fine of $1,000. The penalties don't seem extraordinary until you factor in collateral damage a criminal record can cause long after the terms of sentencing are satisfied. At the very least, a negative background check may influence the way an employer feels about hiring or keeping an offender on the payroll.

The misdemeanor crime covers abusive, intimidating or threatening electronic messages, images or videos that include threats of harm to property or a person. A separate Class A misdemeanor involves defamation -- making untrue statements that damage the reputation of an individual or a business. Harassment is also a crime that under certain circumstances in Wisconsin can be a felony.

A criminal defense attorney can provide legal guidance for Wisconsin cyberbullying defendants including parents of minors accused of threatening, harassing or defaming peers online. Some defendants don't seek legal advice for misdemeanor crimes, thinking the possible consequences aren't worth the effort, only to find out later how damaging a conviction and criminal record can be.

Source: Cyberbullying Research Center, "State Cyberbullying Laws," accessed April. 21, 2015

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