Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Did the NFL's Richie Incognito Violate Florida's Cyber-Harassment Law?

A very troubling situation in the Miami Dolphins' locker room is unfolding regarding alleged hazing and bullying.  It is alleged that Dolphins guard Richie Incognito was bullying offensive tackle Jonathan Martin in person, on the phone, on social media, and in texts.  My first job out of law school was with the National Football League Player's Association (NFLPA) and during my time there I assisted the NFLPA's Health and Safety Committee on several matters.  While hazing has long been a part of many professions, the reported allegations here are very troubling.

Hazing occurs in many walks of life and may be considered part and parcel of the team building process.  This behavior occurs in the military and the plot of the movie "A Few Good Men" centers around what happens when hazing goes to far.  A recent case in Afghanistan demonstrates that in some instances this type of behavior can kill.  The movies "Full Metal Jacket" and "An Officer and A Gentleman" also provide examples of hazing by fellow soldiers and by one's commanding officer.  Hazing incidents at some colleges demonstrate that this behavior is not confined to the military and may take many forms.  Mental cruelty, physical labor, and over work until exhaustion or death have been documented

When do hazing incidents cross the line from "team building exercises" to violations of the law?  Florida has a statute that appears to shed some light on this issue.  Under Florida's law,
(2) A person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person commits the offense of stalking, a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083.
(3) A person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person and makes a credible threat to that person commits the offense of aggravated stalking, a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.

While it is too early to speculate on whether Incognito violated Florida law since not all of the facts are known, if Incognito's voice mails, texts, Tweets, in person interactions, etc.. demonstrates that he "repeatedly" harassed Martin it would not surprise me if charges are brought against Incognito to make an example out of him.  Last month, two girls (12 and 14 years of age) in Florida were arrested after they allegedly tormented a 12-year-old until she committed suicide.  Therefore, Incognito may want to seek legal counsel sooner rather than later.     

The bottom line is that states across the country are amending their laws to account for digital harassment.  While some of these laws may potentially conflict with the First Amendment, the march towards treating digital matters the same as off line issues continues and demonstrates the need for not only NFL players but for everyone to better understand how their digital usage may create tremendous legal liability.     

Copyright 2013 by the Law Office of Bradley S. Shear, LLC All rights reserved.

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