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.