Question: Can you be criminally charged for trash-talking on social media?
Answer provided by Cary B. Hall, Esq. from the Law Offices of Cary B. Hall, LLC:
Cary B. Hall, Esq. responds:
Short answer: yes. Depending on your comments, what you post on social media sites could absolutely result in both criminal charges and a conviction. Several years ago, a Pennsylvania appeals court upheld a Lebanon County teenager’s conviction of criminal harassment for lewd comments she posted on Facebook. The case is Commonwealth v. Cox, 73 A.3d 719 (Pa. Super. 2013).
In that case, the 18-year-old defendant posted the comments on Facebook about another 15-year-old girl, including that she had herpes and that she should stop being sexually promiscuous “like her mother.” The younger girl and her mother reported the comments to the police, and charges were filed.
After a jury trial, the older girl was convicted of criminal harassment, a third-degree misdemeanor, and sentenced to supervised probation for six months plus fines and court costs totaling $1,363.50. It could’ve been worse: the maximum penalty for criminal harassment under this statute is one year in jail and/or a $2,500.00 fine (although jail time is often uncommon for first-time offenders). She will, however, have a criminal record now – reportable on future employment and school applications. Not good.
The statute involved here was 18 Pa.C.S. § 2709(a)(4), which prohibits anyone from communicating “to or about such other person any lewd, lascivious, threatening or obscene words, language, drawings or caricatures” with the intent to harass, annoy or alarm the other.
The trial court noted that “[t]he Facebook post was intentionally made by [Defendant]. It stated that [Victim], then  years old, was not only sexually active but also had a sexually transmitted disease. Both of these statements were untrue. We find that referring to the sexual activities of a -year-old, whether true or not, can be considered lewd or obscene. The post used [Victim’s] full name, so there was no confusion as to who is was directed to. [Defendant] also made the post available not only to her friends, but also friends of friends; thus widening the possible audience. Even though [Defendant] realized her behavior was wrong and took the post down, it had already been viewed by others.”
So, the lessons here are clear. First, inappropriate comments on social media (especially of a sexual nature) can land both kids and adults in criminal trouble, regardless of their truth. Second, once the bell is rung on the internet, you can’t unring it. I hope all parents reading this article will share this very real-life story with their kids – and heed it for themselves as well.
My practice focuses on criminal, civil and family law litigation with over 20 years of tested experience throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and Maryland. My passion is assisting individuals and small businesses with their varied legal issues.
I have successfully tried civil and criminal jury trials, contested family law hearings, administrative proceedings and appeals. I also serve as an arbitrator in civil court cases, and have been court-appointed as defense counsel in state criminal prosecutions.
In addition to my solo law practice, I additionally serve as a Special Assistant Public Defender in Magisterial District Courts throughout Montgomery County. I'm a contributing author (and have even been editor-in-chief) to the Montgomery Bar Association's Civil Practice Manual, the definitive legal manual for practicing law in Montgomery County.
Many moons ago, I earned an Ivy League degree in philosophy from Columbia University, and then my law degree from the University of Miami. I began my legal career as a judicial law clerk in Towson, Maryland, and first established my own law practice there at the age of 26. I moved to Pennsylvania in 2000, and revived my solo practice after working for a few years with local law firms. These early efforts were rewarded by being named a "Pennsylvania Super Lawyer - Rising Star" in 2005 and 2006 by the publishers of Philadelphia magazine. Based upon my law firm experiences, I have found that I now best serve my clients one-on-one as a solo attorney.
Currently, I am privileged to be a trusted advisor and knight-in-shining-armor to satisfied clients throughout the country. I pride myself on providing personalized and affordable legal service to my clients . . . and I even return phone calls.
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