Harassment is the act of continued and regular unwanted actions against a victim. This may include anything from racial epithets to annoying or malicious remarks, but must become a pattern in order to qualify as harassment. Harassment is illegal and a victim can file for a restraining order against the perpetrator. To explore this concept, consider the following harassment definition.

Definition of Harassment


  1. The act of regular and unwarranted actions of one individual or group on another individual or group.


1610    French  harer (to set a dog on)

Types of Harassment

Although many people think of sexual harassment when they hear the term, sexual harassment is but one form of harassing behavior. Harassment often occurs as a result of discrimination, for a variety of attributes, including gender identification, sexual orientation, religion, and race. Types of harassment that may occur in the workplace, and in other situations include the following.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a common form of harassment, often witnessed in workplaces and public venues. Sexual harassment is defined as an act that is unwanted, unwarranted, and annoying or uncomfortable to the person on the receiving end of the behavior.

Unlike some forms of harassment, sexual harassment is defined as unwanted or unwelcome sexual advances, and does not require that the actions must be continued or routine. This is an important distinction, as some forms of harassment must meet the burden of proof that the harassment was continual. If any sexual advance is unwelcome, it qualifies as sexual harassment.

Workplace Harassment

Workplace harassment is defined as belittling, condescending, threatening, or malicious remarks or acts aimed at others within a workplace. This can be as simple as routine and unwanted invitations to a lunch, or as severe as calculated bullying efforts.

An important element of workplace harassment is that it must target a protected class of people. An example of this would be if a subordinate questioned his manager’s motives because he was Muslim. As the man’s religion is a protected class, this would qualify as workplace harassment.

For example:

Omar, who is a Muslim, is constantly the butt of racial jokes from his supervisor at work. Racial slurs and negative comments about Omar’s religion are usually followed by a laugh from the supervisor. Omar, however, hates it so much that he often has anxiety while preparing to go to work each day, and tries to avoid his supervisor.

In this example of harassment, Omar can make a complaint to the labor commission for workplace harassment, if his employer does not take action to correct the issue.

An example behavior that does not qualify as workplace harassment might be Omar’s questioning of his supervisor’s ethical integrity, after seeing his behavior at a recent company party. The specific quality that makes harassment a state or federal legal matter is a question of whether or not the targeted quality, such as Omar’s race and religion, is a protected class. In cases where harassing behavior focuses on something that is not protected, the individual being harassed would still have a claim in a civil court room.

An example of harassment of this type might occur if an employee is incessantly teased and put down about the way he dresses at work. The focus of this harassment is not protected, though the employee could file a civil lawsuit seeking damages for the emotional distress caused by the abuse. However, the state or federal government would not prosecute on his or her behalf because one’s choice in attire is not protected under the federal government.

It is also important to mention that harassment can often escalate into menacing, fear-inducing behavior, or stalking, both of which are much more serious crimes, which may be criminally prosecuted. This means that, even if a perpetrator is not targeting the victim’s religion, race, or gender in his abuse, if it has escalated to stalking or menacing it is still a crime.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Quid pro quo harassment is a situation in which a manager or supervisor offers a subordinate employee some sort of reward in exchange for a demeaning, sexual, or illegal act. An example of quid pro quo harassment may occur if a boss offered his secretary a pay bonus if she performed a sex act on him.

Another example of harassment in a quid pro quo manner may occur if a boss offered a subordinate a better paying position in exchange for illicit drugs. Situations in which a person in authority orders subordinates to do illegal or sexual acts in exchange for some benefit, generally constitute quid pro quo harassment.


Cyberbullying is a form of harassment that has only become prevalent with the advent of the internet, smart phones, and social media. While cyberbullying may be a new form of harassment, it is still legally regarded in much the same way as other types of harassment, and often has devastating effects.

For example, a key component of cyberbullying is whether or not it is an ongoing or sustained attack. A hurtful text or tweet is unlikely to qualify as harassment from a legal perspective, whereas repeated messages that are unwanted and unwarranted absolutely would.

Laws specifically addressing cyberbullying are a very recent addition. Even prior to their creation, however, any form of harassment that a victim could argue was continued and unwarranted, would meet the standards of harassment under the law. Experts theorize that cyberbullying has become a rampant problem is because it bypasses an important cultural code that people previously adhered to in facing others face-to-face.

This means that cyber-abusers hide behind their anonymity, knowing that their victims cannot confront them directly. In addition, cyber-bullies easily draw others to their attacks through social media, making them feel powerful. With Internet and electronic communications, these cultural norms have changed significantly.

For example:

Elsa is the new girl in school, having moved into the district with her family halfway through the year. Quiet by nature, Elsa finds it difficult to talk to new kids, and focuses instead on her music and homework. Amy finds Elsa’s shyness off-putting, and starts to make negative comments about everything from Elsa’s dress, glasses, and general appearance, to the fact that she prefers to sit with other quiet kids at lunch.

When teachers and school administrators realize what is going on, they threaten Amy with detention. Amy then takes her attacks to the protective environment of the internet. Amy launches a campaign of harassing remarks targeted at Elsa on Facebook, Twitter, and other social network platforms.

Soon, a host of other kids join in what they may consider good-natured kidding, but which can only be considered cruel by others. Elsa becomes afraid to go to school, where any number of kids wait to make fun of her, and depression sets in. In this example of harassment, cyberbullying has already had a devastating effect on Elsa, and is a criminal action.

Harassment Laws

Harassment must be broken down into two categories: civil harassment, and criminal harassment. Should someone make a harassing statement against another based upon a protected category such as race, religion, creed, or sex, that person would be criminally culpable. However, if the harassment does not fall under this criminal category of harassment laws, the perpetrator could still be liable in a civil context.

Criminal Harassment

Criminal harassment can be a felony or a misdemeanor, depending upon the severity of actions. One of the most important factors taken into consideration is whether or not the perpetrator has a history of similar behavior, including previous assault or harassment charges. State laws on criminal harassment vary, with a general emphasis on protecting individuals of protected groups.

Civil Harassment

Litigation can still commence based on a perceived act of harassment, however it will be limited to a civil suit. If a person feels harassed at work, but the behavior does not fall into a category covered by federal or state harassment laws, the victim may sue the perpetrator in civil court. In such a civil lawsuit, the victim’s goal would be to show the court that the perpetrator’s behaviors were unwanted, bothersome, and anxiety-provoking.

Harassment Example in Cyberbullying

In 2006, 46-year old Lori Drew thought that 13-year old Megan Meier, who lived down the block, was saying mean things, and spreading false rumors about her daughter, Sarah. The woman, with the help of her daughter and an employee, created a fake MySpace account in the name of a fictional 16-year old boy named “Josh Evans.” Over the course of months, “Josh” frequently contacted Megan, flirting with her.

After Megan developed what she thought was some type of relationship with “Josh,” he sent a message to her saying that she was a bad person, and everyone hated her. He told her “the world would be a better place without you.” Two days later, Megan hanged herself in her bedroom closet.

The world was shocked, as this incident brought the issue of harassment and cyberbullying to the forefront of Americans’ thoughts. The district attorney attempted to prosecute Lori Drew for causing the girl’s suicide, but there were no laws protecting people against attacks coming over electronic media. The prosecution charged Drew with several counts related to her use of computers and the Internet to harass the young girl. The jury found Drew guilty only of one count of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

The prosecution asked that Drew spend a minimum of three years in prison, and be ordered to pay a $300,000 fine, for violating MySpace’s terms of service, and unauthorized access of computers, both of which were only misdemeanors. Drew appealed, however, and the conviction was overturned. The harassment perpetrated on Megan Meier was an example of the seriousness of such acts. Since that time, legislation has made progress in recognizing cyberbullying as serious, and often dangerous, harassment.

Police Harassment

Police harassment is perhaps the most nuanced version of harassment, as the goals of a citizen and the goals of a police officer are often in conflict, though both individuals are owed constitutional rights. A police officer has the right to search and seize evidence when suspecting a felony has been committed, but a citizen has the right to counsel and protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. For this reason, court ordered warrants are necessary before a police officer can commit many searches.

There are many other circumstances in which a police officer’s conduct may become harassment. Like other forms of harassment, this generally means that there is a repeated and sustained pattern of annoying or malicious conduct. Examples of police harassment may include:

  • A police officer repeatedly stopping or profiling someone based on a protected attribute
  • A police officer making racist or xenophobic remarks about a person
  • A police officer spying on someone, or watching someone without a warrant

Police harassment is especially heinous because an officer is essentially using his badge, uniform, and authority to intimidate and abuse others. The officer’s official position does not, however, make him immune to the consequences of his actions. Police harassment is illegal.

Plain View Doctrine

Many people become concerned about whether a law enforcement officer has the right to search them, their cars, or their belongings. There are certain rules governing when and what a police officer may search without a warrant. In general, if the officer witnesses someone committing a felony, and apprehends that person, he may search the individual’s person, belongings in his possession, and the immediate area around the suspect, at the time of the arrest. If the individual is inside a car, and the officer sees evidence of illegal activity occurring within the car, he can search the car without a warrant.

A law enforcement officers who unreasonably and forcefully questions an individual, and who does not see reasonable evidence of a crime being committed, in plain view, cannot search without a warrant, and doing so may be considered police harassment. If, however, there is enough information to give the officer probable cause to believe a crime has been, or is being, committed, such as the bulge of a possible firearm in or under the person’s clothing, or the presence of illicit drug paraphernalia, may search, and it is not considered harassment.

Harassment Example

If a Gwyneth asks Hector if he wants to get lunch and he politely declines, this is not harassment. However, if she returns the next morning and asks him if he would like to get lunch again, this may qualify as harassment, depending on the context of the repeated requests.

If she were to continue to ask him regularly if he would like to get lunch, if he were to politely decline and ask her to stop with the requests, and she were to continually ignore his pleas, her act would constitute harassment. The important element is that Gwyneth’s requests were repeated, were unwanted, and—because Hector specifically asked her to stop—were unwarranted.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Burden of Proof – The obligation of a party who initiates a legal action (the “plaintiff”) to prove his or her claims.
  • Cyberbullying – The use of the internet, cell phone, email, instant messaging, chat rooms, or social networks to harass, demean, embarrass, or intimidate someone.
  • Litigation – The process of taking legal action; the process of suing someone, or trying them for a criminal act.
  • Miranda Rights – Specific rights to which any person taken into police custody is entitled. Police must advise each person arrested of each of these rights before any questioning can be done.
  • Protected Class – A group of people with certain characteristics that are protected by law, such as race, religion, and disability.
  • Stalking – The act of pursuing game, prey, or a person by stealth; the act of harassing an individual in an aggressive, threatening, or illegal manner.