What Qualifies as Harassment in MA?

Woman reading harassing text messages in Massachusetts.

In Massachusetts, harassment is legally defined as three or more acts of willful and malicious conduct aimed at a specific person which are intended to cause fear, intimidation, abuse, or damage to property. This definition includes behavior that seriously alarms or annoys the person, and would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress. The conduct must also have actually caused such distress to the targeted individual. Acts of harassment can include stalking, threats, bullying, and more, depending on the context and severity of the actions.

What Constitutes Harassment?

Harassment involves a series of acts directed at a specific person that are intended to cause:

  • fear,
  • intimidation, or
  • distress

These acts may include unwelcome:

  • text messages,
  • phone calls,
  • internet communications, or even
  • physical conduct.

For behavior to be legally recognized as harassment, it must involve three or more separate occasions of such conduct, demonstrating a knowing pattern of conduct that significantly disturbs the recipient.

Legal Definitions and Key Terms

The Role of a "Reasonable Person"

A reasonable person standard is often applied in harassment cases to determine if the behavior would generally affect a normal individual under similar circumstances. This helps in assessing claims of substantial emotional distress. Under this standard, the court isn’t considering whether you were affected by the harassing behavior, but rather, if the average person would have suffered harm.

Defining "Substantial Emotional Distress"

Substantial emotional distress means significant mental suffering or anguish that may affect daily activities or requires professional treatment. It is not simply annoyance or upset; the impact must be considerable and demonstrable.

Harassment Prevention Orders

Harassment Prevention Orders are a critical tool in Massachusetts law designed to protect individuals from harassment, including:

  • stalking,
  • sexual harassment, and
  • other forms of malicious behavior.


Here’s a look at how these orders work and the process involved in obtaining one.

Filing for a Harassment Prevention Order

The process begins with you filing an Application at your local court. This application must detail the nature of the harassment, providing specific instances that meet the state’s legal definition of harassment—namely, three or more acts of willful and malicious conduct aimed to cause fear, intimidation, abuse, or damage to property.

Court Hearings for Harassment Prevention Orders

After the Application is filed, you’ll have a hearing that same day. At this hearing, you must present evidence supporting your claim of harassment. This evidence can include but is not limited to:

  • text messages,
  • emails,
  • witness statements, and
  • any other documentation that substantiates the pattern of harassment.


In cases where immediate protection is necessary, a Temporary Harassment Prevention Order can be issued without the presence of your harasser. This temporary order is generally valid until the formal hearing, which is usually scheduled within 10 days.

Criteria for Issuing Harassment Prevention Orders

During the formal hearing, both you and your harasser have the opportunity to present your sides. The judge evaluates the evidence based on the “preponderance of evidence” standard, which is lower than the criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If the judge finds it more likely than not that harassment has occurred, they will issue a Harassment Prevention Order.

Provisions and Validity of Harassment Prevention Orders

A harassment prevention order may include several provisions, such as:

  • prohibiting further contact with you,
  • requiring your harasser to stay away from your home or workplace, and
  • other terms necessary to protect you.


These orders can last for up to a year and can be extended upon request if the threat persists.

Enforcement and Violations

Once issued, Harassment Prevention Orders are enforceable throughout the state. Violating a harassment prevention order is a criminal offense and can lead to arrest and potential charges, which may result in jail time, fines, or both. It’s crucial for both parties to understand the terms of the Order and for your harasser to strictly follow them to avoid further legal complications.

Help Getting a Restraining Order in Massachusetts

If you’d like help getting a Restraining Order without paying an expensive attorney, we can help. With our Legal Coaching we can walk you through every step to make sure you’re ready for your hearing. The first thing to do is see if you qualify for a Massachusetts Restraining Order. Click on the link below to see if you qualify for either type of Restraining Order.

Criminal Harassment Charges

If the harassment involves threats of:

  • physical harm,
  • sexual assault, or
  • other criminal offenses,

criminal charges can be pursued. These charges might lead to prosecution, potentially resulting in jail time, fines, or both, depending on the severity and nature of the harassment.

Harassment in Digital Communications

With the rise of digital technology, harassment through electronic communication devices has become increasingly common. This includes harassment via:

  • social media,
  • instant messages, and
  • email.

Massachusetts law covers all forms of electronic communications under harassment statutes, recognizing the evolving nature of personal interactions.

The Court System and Trials

Navigating Massachusetts Courts

Understanding the role of different courts in Massachusetts, such as Juvenile, District, and Superior Courts, is vital when dealing with harassment cases. Each court has specific jurisdictions and procedures for handling these cases.

Trial Processes and Jury Trials

In cases where harassment escalates to criminal charges, your harasser may have the right to a jury trial. The trial process is an opportunity the government, representing you, and your harasser to present evidence and argue their case, ultimately aiming for a just verdict.

First Amendment Considerations

While addressing harassment, it’s important to balance the rights afforded by the First Amendment. Not all unpleasant or offensive speech constitutes harassment. Legal advice is often necessary to discern between what is legally actionable and what is protected speech. There are only two categories of speech that will qualify as harassment:

  1. Fighting words, and
  2. True threats.

Legal Concepts: Fighting Words and True Threats

Understanding Fighting Words

“Fighting words” are those spoken face-to-face that could lead someone to commit an act of violence. However, in the context of harassment, merely offensive or rude speech does not meet the threshold of criminal harassment unless it can be shown to provoke immediate violence or pose a true threat to safety.

True Threats Explained

A “true threat” involves statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of intent to commit an act of unlawful violence. Unlike general offensive speech, true threats are not protected under the First Amendment and can be pursued legally if they meet the criteria of causing reasonable fear in victims.

Protecting Your Rights

Legal Protections and Civil Orders

Beyond criminal proceedings, victims can seek civil orders and protective orders to safeguard against further harassment. These orders are crucial in preventing contact and protecting sensitive information.

Seeking Help and
Further Information

If you believe you are a victim of harassment, taking prompt and informed action is essential. Understanding your legal rights and the resources available can empower you to address the situation effectively and seek the best possible outcome under state law.

Legal Disclaimer

This article is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult with an attorney to discuss your specific circumstances and receive tailored guidance.

Seeking Help and Further Information

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