City officials in Dardenne Prairie, Missouri unanimously passed a measure on November 21 making online harassment a crime, punishable by up to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail. The city's six-member Board of Aldermen passed the ordinance in response to 13-year-old Megan Meier's suicide.
Meier committed suicide after a "boy" she met on MySpace abruptly turned on her and ended their relationship. The boy was allegedly Lori Drew, a neighbor who had pretended to be 16-year-old "Josh Evans" to gain the trust of Megan, who had been fighting with Drew's daughter, according to the Los Angeles Times. (In an interesting side note, the local media refused to identify the neighbor who was allegedly involved, so several blogs such as RottenNeighbor.com and hitsusa.com did some investigating and identified Drew and posted the Drews' home address, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and photographs.)
When it looked like local and federal prosecutors could not find a way to charge anyone for Meier's death, city officials stepped in and made online harassment a crime. As the Associated Press reports:
Mayor Pam Fogarty said the city had proposed the measure after learning about Megan Meier's death. "It is our hope that by supporting one of our own in Dardenne Prairie, we can do our part to ensure this type of harassing behavior never happens again, anywhere," Fogarty said, adding, "after all, harassment is harassment regardless of the mechanism or tool."
While Meier's suicide is a tragedy and it is laudable that city officials want to reduce online harassment, criminalizing such conduct raises important First Amendment concerns. I should point out, however, that I've been unable to review the actual language of the ordinance, and have had to rely on the following press reports.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "the ordinance outlaws harassment using electronic communication, which includes the Internet, e-mail, paging services and mobile phone text messaging." The Associated Press is a bit more helpful:
The four-page measure defines both harassment and cyber-harassment, essentially making it illegal to engage in a pattern of conduct that would cause a reasonable person to suffer "substantial emotional distress," or for an adult to contact a child under 18 in a communication causing a reasonable parent to fear for the child's well-being.
Generally speaking, the government may ban speech in this context only if it will clearly cause direct and imminent harm. Because the Dardenne Prairie ordinance appears to criminalizes otherwise protected speech (for example, pure opinion), it is likely to be unconstitutional.
On Wednesday, October 21st, city officials wasted no time enacting an ordinance designed to address the public outcry for justice in the Megan Meier tragedy. The six member Board of Aldermen made Internet harassment a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail.
Does this new law provide any justice for Megan? Does this law provide equitable relief for a future victim?
The Vice rejects the premise of this new law and believes it completely misses the mark. Classifying this case as a harassment issue completely fails to address the most serious aspects of the methods Lori Drew employed to lead this youth to her demise. The Vice disagrees that harassment was even a factor in this case until just a couple of days before Megan's death.
Considering this case a harassment issue is incorrect because during the 5 weeks Lori Drew baited and groomed her victim, the attention was NOT unwanted attention. Megan participated in the conversations willingly because she was misled, lured, manipulated and exploited without her knowledge.
This law willfully sets a precedent that future child exploiters and predators might use to reclassify their cases as harassment cases. In effect, the law enacted to give Megan justice, may make her even more vulnerable. So long as the child victim doesn't tell the predator to stop, even a harassment charge may not stick with the right circumstances and a good defender.
Every aspect of this case follows the same procedural requirement used to convict a Child Predator. A child was manipulated by an adult. A child was engaged in sexually explicit conversation (as acknowledged by Lori Drew herself). An adult imposed her will on a child by misleading her, using a profile designed to sexually or intimately attract the 13 year old Megan.
Lori then utilized the power she had gained over this child to cause significant distress and endangerment to that child. She even stipulated to many of these activities in the police report she filed shortly after Megan's death.
City officials who continue to ignore this viable, documented admission and continue to address this issue as harassment are intentionally burying their heads in the sand, when the solution is staring them right in the face. Why?
There are several other child exploitation laws on the books. To date, none of them have even been considered by City, State and Federal officials in this case. The Vice is outraged that a motion was never even filed, so that the case could at least be argued before a judge or jury.
I think its interesting how some of the news outlets were refusing to print Lori Drew's name, even though she'd already confessed and tried to shrug it off as unimportant, despite Meier's suicide. Now that she's under inditement, they HAVE to print it. Hahaha...