Online Harassment Laws in California Overview

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There has recently been a lot of talk about what freedom of speech means online.

In one corner, you have people who believe you can and should be able to write almost anything without repercussions. In the other corner, people want to censor online posts and commentary.

In reality, opposing viewpoints should not be censored; however, civil society cannot tolerate online harassment. 

Do you know where to turn for help if someone accuses you of violating California online harassment laws?

The criminal defense lawyers at The Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, utilize our knowledge and passion to protect our clients’ rights.

With nearly 50 years of collective experience, Kerry Armstrong and his team are ready to fight to achieve the best possible result for you.

Cyber Harassment Definition

Harassing a person online is a crime.

According to the California Penal Code §653.2, cyber harassment refers to posting information online about a person without that person’s consent, with the intent to place the alleged victim in fear for their safety or the safety of someone in their immediate family.

To violate the law, you must post this information for the purpose of imminently causing unwanted physical contact, injury, or harassment by a third party. 

Some activities that could constitute this crime include the following;

  • Electronically distributing or publishing information that could be used to harass; 
  • Electronically sending emails, hyperlinks, or otherwise making such personal information—including a digital image of another individual—available for downloading; or 
  • Drafting an electronic message of a harassing nature about the alleged victim that could incite or produce unlawful action.

All these activities fall under the definition of online harassment. 

Is Doxxing Illegal in California?

Penal Code section 653.2 is also the California “doxxing” law. Yes, doxxing is illegal in California under harassment and cyberbullying laws. Additionally, a new bill may provide further legal recourse for victims through lawsuits.

Doxxing or “dropping dox” (documents) refers to publishing personal information about someone with the intent to identify them.

Posting the target’s residential address, phone number, workplace information, information about their family, social security number, or criminal history are examples of personal data a person would use “to dox” another.  

Key Elements for Proving Online Harassment in California

To secure a cyber harassment conviction in California, the prosecution must prove several factors outlined in Penal Code section 653.2:

  • Knowingly, willfully, and repeatedly—the defendant must have intentionally and purposefully engaged in a repeated and intentional pattern of electronic communication, not just a single incident;
  • Electronic communication—the harassment must have occurred through electronic means, such as emails, text messages, social media posts, or online forums;
  • Directed at a specific person—the harassing conduct must have been targeted toward a particular individual, not the general public;
  • No legitimate purpose—the communication cannot be justified by a lawful reason, such as a debt collection effort; and
  • Serious alarm, annoyance, torment, or terror—the communication must be of a nature that a reasonable person would find seriously alarming, annoying, tormenting, or terrorizing.

It’s important to note that simply sending a mean or angry message would not necessarily qualify as cyber harassment. The severity and repeated nature of the communication play a crucial role.

Potential Penalties for Online Harassment in California

Cyber harassment is a misdemeanor offense in California. If the prosecution charges you with this crime, you may face the following penalties:

  • Up to one year in county jail,
  • A fine of up to $1,000, and
  • Court-ordered probation.

However, the court may consider aggravating factors, such as the victim’s criminal history, threats of violence, or the use of harassment to harm the victim’s reputation or career. In such cases, additional charges or harsher penalties may be imposed.

As with any crime, you stand to lose more than your liberty. A conviction could lead to job loss, lost educational opportunities, or other harsh consequences.

The only way to avoid these life-altering considerations is to work with an attorney who understands what it takes to clear your name.

Can You Get a Restraining Order for Online Harassment?

Yes, California law allows harassment victims to obtain protection through a harassment restraining order.

Civil harassment restraining orders operate very much like domestic violence abuse protection orders, except that harassment orders restrain people other than a spouse, domestic partner, or close family member. 

How to Report Online Harassment

We often field questions about online harassment that our clients suffer from alleged victims or witnesses in their cases. We tell them to call 911 if they are in imminent danger.

Otherwise, they can make a report to their local police department. However, we ask you to contact us before talking to the police. 

How to Defend Against Cyber Harassment Charges in California

If you have been charged with cyber harassment in California, a San Diego County criminal defense attorney can help you explore your legal defenses. Here are a few common strategies.

  • Lack of intent. Your lawyer might argue that you lacked the necessary intent to harass the victim. Perhaps the messages were misinterpreted or intended as a joke.
  • First Amendment rights. In some cases, free speech protections under the First Amendment may apply. This could be relevant if the communication, though offensive, doesn’t meet the threshold of harassment.
  • Mistake of fact. It might be possible to argue that you mistakenly believed the communication was acceptable or directed at someone else.

Your case’s unique circumstances will determine the specific defense strategy. Your San Diego County criminal defense lawyer will identify the most effective approach.

Get the Legal Protection You Need from the Team You Trust

The Law Offices of Kerry L. Armstrong, APLC, offers our clients superior service and emotional support.

We know you deserve the highest level of advocacy, and our award-winning criminal lawyers, led by Kerry L. Armstrong, consistently deliver the best possible results for our clients.

Contact us today for a free consultation at 619-234-2300.

Where You Can Find Our San Diego Office

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Kerry L. Armstrong


Attorney Kerry Armstrong opened up his law firm in June 2007. Mr. Armstrong attended Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego, California, and received his B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University. Kerry L. Armstrong became certified by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization for criminal law in August 2020, making him one of the few criminal defense attorneys with a criminal law legal specialization certificate in San Diego County.  Between 2014 – 2019, Mr. Armstrong was selected for inclusion in the California Super Lawyers list, an honor only awarded to 5% of the nation’s attorneys.

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