Even after experiencing the worst of the Internet, Lisa-Michelle Kucharz ’90, knows that it’s become essential to our lives. Yet her lived experience impacts every word she speaks at the podium.
“I am not here to tell you to shun social media, avoid all apps or stay away from the internet. Technology, the internet and social media are some of the greatest gifts of the 21st century,” Kucharz said. “While these gifts can be extraordinarily positive, negative and sometimes devastating behaviors have emerged through their use. Online abuse is one of the most important conversations today, especially for college students.”
Kucharz earned her bachelor’s in political science at Binghamton University and was covered in the Fall 2022 edition of the Binghamton University Magazine for her work in cyberbullying prevention. Although originally an expert in marketing and communications and an adjunct professor at Long Island University, she knows the details of online abuse and can speak on the laws surrounding it very well — because she lived it herself. Starting in 2014, she was the victim of months of endless discriminatory and hateful speech, as well as a targeted effort to instill fear of bodily harm.
On Sept. 20, 2023, the seventh annual John and Lawrence Bonzani Memorial Lecture took place in the Chamber Hall in the Anderson Center for the Performing Arts. The topic was “The Law & Online Abuse”, and Kucharz spoke about her experience as a victim and activist.
After months of repeated torment, Kucharz said, she decided to deactivate or delete all of her social media. Yet removing herself was still not enough to prevent the steady stream of offenses that were building up around the case. Using false names and aliases, the harasser sent emails and messages through Kucharz’s website, contacted her friends and family and even doxxed her (a term referring to the release of private or identifying information), sharing her parents’ address.
Kucharz soon learned that the harasser was in Canada. Aggravated harassment is a misdemeanor in New York, but not an extraditable offense, and thus her local police could offer no further assistance. In Canada, the police couldn’t pursue it any further, either, because the target of the abuse was in New York. This is common in cases like these.
“Online abuse knows no boundaries, but often jurisdictional issues, varying laws and outdated reporting policies leave targets without recourse or forced to endure a difficult and time-consuming path to justice,” Kucharz said.
Yet Kucharz continued to fight back. After eventually pursuing a legal case with the aid of detectives, attorneys and other legal professionals, Kucharz was successful in her efforts, and the harasser pleaded guilty in 2017 and sentenced to a six-month jail term.
Kucharz became devoted to preventing this from happening to others.
“For three years, I reached out to almost every New York state senator and assembly person to remind them of the importance of cyberbullying prevention initiatives. I also asked others to contact them. I spoke with legislators at community events. I held events, was a panelist and discussed legislation and other initiatives on social media and with advocates, educators and news outlets. In May 2021, [the cyberbullying task force bill] passed in both houses. Five months later, it was signed by Governor Hochul,” said Kucharz, adding that the fight is far from over.
The legislation contained deadlines for the formation of the task force and when it was supposed to report back; these deadlines passed.
“In 2022, I reached out to all of the sponsors and co-sponsors. I heard back from several and three senators reached out to the governor and leadership of both houses, encouraging them to form the task force,” she said. “According to the last update I received from the governor’s office, they were still finalizing appointments and hoping it would convene soon.”
Not even Kucharz’s case is completely resolved. Like many victims of online abuse, a trial, conviction and ban from accessing the internet wasn’t enough to completely stop her harasser from contacting her.
“Days after my harasser’s probation ended, she began publicly posting about me again. She threatened to try to have me arrested. She attempted to have me banned from entering Canada and taunted me about it, and again, she made threats of violence,” Kucharz recounted. “I filed another local police report in May 2022.”
In her talk, Kucharz discussed different forms of online abuse. She is dedicated to increasing awareness of these issues and providing resources to those affected.
“A month after the sentencing, my story was shared with media outlets. People began to reach out to me, mostly parents whose children were experiencing cyberbullying and adults facing some form of online abuse,” she said. “Everyone needed information and resources.”