By Julie Pierce Onos — Julie Pierce Onos has written on many subjects including business, parenting, spirituality, and holistic health. She is a Yale University graduate, a mother of three, and works in organization development in the Boston area. Follow her on Twitter @JuliePierceOnos
In April, the Detroit Free Press published an article that caught our eye. Due to public health concerns, Wayne County, Michigan had started to allow people to file for Personal Protective Orders (PPO), sometimes also referred to as restraining orders, online.
Wayne County Circuit Court was not the first in Michigan to allow online filings. The websites of both Oakland and Macomb Counties reference remote filing capacity. Remote filing for PPOs, also known as restraining orders, has spread to other counties in Michigan during the coronavirus pandemic. (It’s worth noting, however, that some jurisdictions have offered online filing in the last several years and that, often, it does help to file in person, where a clerk can review the documents as it’s being filed.)
Particularly in the wake of COVID-19, was this becoming a more widely available option? And, if so, what do you need to know?
Online Harassment & Restraining Orders
Being harassed online is particularly pernicious because it can be difficult to find the perpetrators; they can expose their targets to harm from other malicious people and the harm can happen in a matter of seconds.
While PPOs and the processes for obtaining them vary widely from state to state, in Michigan, a PPO is a court order to stop threats, stalking or violence. While other jurisdictions use different terminology, in Michigan there are three general categories of PPOs: Domestic Relationship, Non-domestic Stalking and Non-domestic Sexual Assault. For those who are experiencing harassment online due to their work as a journalist, for example, the type of PPO needed is the non-domestic stalking PPO.
Information compiled through Women’sLaw.org shows that states and territories fall into three categories when it comes to requesting a PPO order: completely in person, can obtain the forms online but file in person or filing can be completely done remotely.
In Alaska, California, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa and New Hampshire you can obtain the forms online and can currently file remotely (although in New Hampshire this is only available through a domestic violence program or agency). However, always check what your local jurisdiction allows. Whether you can file online differs from county to county and, in many cases, filing in person is advantageous because it ensures the documents are actually filed.
Some states, including Alaska, Connecticut and New Hampshire, have made these options available while COVID-19 distancing measures are in effect, so again, it’s best to double check your location jurisdiction. In D.C. and New Jersey, forms are not available online, but some advocacy groups (like domestic violence or other victims services organizations) may have them. In all other states and territories where forms are available online, filing must still happen in person.
In most states, the information and forms needed by a journalist or someone harassed online by a perpetrator with whom they do not have a personal relationship can be found—either online or physically at the court—in the same area as domestic abuse prevention order information.
Generally, the process for filing restraining orders involves completing forms where the PPO requestor (the target of harassment or stalking) swears to the occurrence of incidents that cause intimidation or fear or that constitute harassment or stalking. You’ll also attach documentation of the harassment, like posts, emails, texts or other exhibits. See this guide for more information on keeping your documents organized.
Initially a judge can grant a temporary order while waiting for the hearing. In some jurisdictions, the temporary or emergency order goes into effect immediately. In others, it doesn’t go into effect until the harasser is served. Jurisdictions vary widely, but in general, the hearing will be within a couple weeks to change a temporary restraining order into a longer-term one (between six months and two years). At that hearing, both sides have an opportunity to speak and a judge issues a determination. All states have anti-stalking laws that might apply to online harassment.
However, the definition of stalking varies. In some states it’s sufficient if the target understands the messaging to imply a threat. In other states, there has to be a specific and ‘credible’ threat of violence. The definition can also often be broad and difficult to demonstrate (for example, it might not matter that you feel fear, but that under the law, “reasonable person” would feel the same way. That can mean a lot of different things.) As these examples make clear, the law can vary widely based on your location and outcomes can depend on the judge overseeing your case.
While it represents progress to be able to obtain forms online and to file remotely, there is another area of consideration to explore: privacy. Research for this article did not reveal any courts that specifically mention the digital security of the filing process or options for protections of filers’ information from stalkers. Judiciary systems need to ensure their software systems have the capability to impound and protect the personal contact information of the filers. Otherwise, the filing process could become a source of information that stalkers, abusers and malicious people can use to obtain the location of their targets.
Note that your address could be public, so consider using a P.O Box if possible (this could also be a benefit of using an attorney, as info like a home address can be shielded from view). Some states, as is the case in California, may offer free P.O. Box services to targets of domestic abuse. Check your local victims services (DV or cyberstalking are two example services you might look for) through a quick Google search to see what support may be offered in your area.
Online Harassment: A Persistent Problem
According to a 2017 Pew Study and as cited by the Privacy Rights Clearing House resource center for online harassment and stalking, 18 percent of Americans have experienced severe online harassment that includes physical threats, sexual harassment, stalking and long-term (sustained) online harassment. More recent numbers from a 2020 Anti-Defamation League survey place this number even higher; 28 percent of all respondents said they experienced severe online harassment. For members of marginalized groups, the figure rises to 35 percent.
As publicly visible individuals, journalists can be particularly vulnerable to online harassment. A study released in 2019 by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) includes the disturbing finding that online harassment is the biggest safety concern for female journalists.
Struggling to seek help or being denied justice is a common experience for survivors of intimate partner violence—and may have a chilling effect on those seeking PPOs in non-domestic situations as well as filers of all types of PPOs. “It took me months to get up the courage to go to court to ask for a restraining order,” a female domestic abuse survivor, who asked to remain anonymous for this article, shared, “The judge asked me what took me so long to file. And I told him that honestly, I was scared of the repercussions. Now that I’ve had the order in place a few months, I realize nothing is perfect; but I know that at least I have begun the process of speaking up for myself and he knows that the stakes are high if the restrained person violates the order.”
Brooklyn-based journalist Nadya Agrawal, 29, recalls online harassment she received as a brand new reporter in her first job at a mainstream outlet. Malicious individuals weaponized the publication’s form that had been designed for readers to report article corrections and inaccuracies. “An incident I remember clearly is when…a very angry man…sent me an email accusing me of ‘sucking white d*ck’ along with other pejorative sexist and racist comments,” she says.
Her supervisors were supportive and IT personnel monitored the system to prevent those types of messages from getting through. “But even those steps are reactive,” notes Agrawal. And, because she did not receive many repeat messages from the same person, she didn’t pursue a personal protective order since establishing a pattern of threats in addition to harassment is important to many courts. Unfortunately, this legal standard doesn’t always match real life. CPJ’s study revealed experiences such as a man attempting to enter a respondent’s workplace - a security threat for everyone in that location - without there being multiple threats to do so.
The patchwork quilt of laws and procedures surrounding obtaining protective orders for intimate partner violence and online harassment is confusing and difficult to navigate. I personally have received recommendations to “just block” a harasser; however, this outdated recommendation leaves the onus for foreseeing and resolving threats on the person being harassed, rather than focusing on stopping the stalking, threatening or fear-invoking behavior chosen by the harasser.
A salient question to be explored in the legal field is at what point should repeated implied threats meet the threshold for protective orders in all states. To prevent roadblocks to petitioning for protection, states should make the forms freely available online. All states should have an option to file remotely that makes it possible to keep the petitioner’s contact information private.
Another thing to consider is that a previous experience with injustice can discourage you from seeking justice in other instances. That’s understandable. Lynne Schmidt, the founder of AbortionChat, says that since she began publicly writing stories about her abortion in a positive light, she was met with death, rape and other violent threats. She reported the threats to authorities, but didn’t attempt to obtain a PPO for online harassers and stalkers. This was, in part, because she had previously sought protection from an abusive intimate partner relationship but had been denied a restraining order from a judge who didn’t seem to take her concerns seriously.
The hesitation is understandable. The process can leave you discouraged. However, a few things may make it more likely that a judge grants the Temporary Restraining Order (TRO):
- Include a summary of what happened and why it causes fear. Although it can be fairly obvious when recounting the story to a familiar person, it may not be as obvious to a judge unfamiliar with the individuals involved.
- Include documentation of the harassment and copies of that documentation. You can add extra pages to your report, which is helpful, but also note that being brief and to-the-point is also important.
- The hearing is often quick. Be prepared with cogent, time-ordered facts.
- Make police reports and obtain copies of the police reports.
Common Challenges & Next Steps
It’s important to note that, unfortunately, filing is only the start of the process and does not guarantee justice or safety. Ultimately, a TRO is a piece of paper and it’s uncertain the person being restrained will follow the order. Therefore, you may need to take into account a few additional steps to proactively protect yourself from harassment and maintain psychological safety:
- Scrub social media profiles of personally identifiable information
- Enlist a friend to monitor social media or email for implicit and explicit threats
- Control who is allowed to make comments to your blog or website
- Take time to step away and practice emotional well-being
Online harassment and stalking is malicious and damaging and no one is supposed to be “strong enough” to handle this alone. And take care that if you seek employer protection, legal justice and similar “official” routes of recourse that you prepare for potential disappointment and an emotional toll. (It’s important to note how you present the situation to your employer, on social media or other “public” statements. Even if these conversations seem private, they may be subject to subpoena and can muddy your claims down the road.) Make sure to intentionally stitch an emotional support or community support plans into each step of your response to the harassment. This isn’t the type of experience that authority or time simply heals.
While all this information is certainly a lot to consider, don’t despair. Schmidt shares this encouragement, “The people who need your story and your words? They’re watching. And even if they’re not able to [do so] vocally, they’re supporting you. This is what keeps me going. The people who aren’t able to share their stories.”
This article is not legal advice in any way and is intended for informational purposes only. For more info, visit the OnlineSOS Resource List, which includes links to third party legal support or resources.