Latest Missouri Case Puts Focus on Cyberbullying Laws

October 10, 2008 11:58 AM
by Denis Cummings
A cyberbully is facing a lawsuit from her teenage victim’s father, causing some to question cyberbullying laws that have been instituted or proposed recently.

Missouri Father Suing Cyberbully

A 16-year-old girl in Clayton, Mo., was bullied online and now needs psychiatric care due to emotional damage she suffered. Her father has filed a lawsuit against the cyberbully, whose identity has not been confirmed, for the medical costs. The lawsuit also demands that social networking site Facebook and Web portal provide information about the cyberbully to confirm her identity.

According to the lawsuit, the cyberbully created a Facebook account of “Jennifer Litzinger” to compete with the victim for the attention of an area boy. The bully used a photo of a model so the victim “would feel inferior to her purported rival with respect to her physical attractiveness,” and sent messages to the victim saying that the boy preferred her.

It is reminiscent of a 2006 case, which also occurred in Missouri. Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl, committed suicide after receiving cruel comments online from her friend’s mother, Lori Drew, who was pretending to be a teenage boy. The case triggered national outrage, prompting the passage of cyberbullying laws in Missouri and other states and the introduction of a cyberbullying bill before Congress.

However, the Missouri law did not go into effect until Aug. 28; the “Litzinger” case occurred in July, meaning that the new law cannot be applied. Drew was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and the St. Charles County Business Record reports that “Litzinger” may be charged using the same act.

For some, the Litzinger case illustrates the need for such laws to punish cyberbullies without stretching the interpretation of the CFAA. However, others believe that the laws go too far, extending to behavior that should be legal and violating Internet users’ First Amendment rights.

Background: The Meier case and cyberbullying laws

The Megan Meier case is the most well-known example of cyberbullying and it has prompted the creation of cyberbullying laws in Meier’s hometown and several states. The state of Missouri passed a cyberbullying law in June 2008, which applied its standing harassment laws to telephone and electronic communication and expanded the definition of harassment. It also raised the penalty of adults who cyberbully minors to a felony.

Previously, most harassment laws required a “credible threat,” meaning that there is a threat the bully will inflict bodily harm. Because Drew and “Litzinger” merely tormented their victims and did not threaten them, the law does not apply to them. New laws expand harassment to include bullies inflicting emotional distress.

The Missouri law states that a person is committing harassment by “knowingly communicating with another person who is, or who purports to be, seventeen years of age or younger and in so doing, and without good cause, recklessly frightens, intimidates, or causes emotional distress to such other person.”

Other states have also passed laws designed to prevent cyberbullying, most recently Illinois. There is also a bill introduced to Congress in May by Reps. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., and Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo., called the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act.

Under that law, anyone who communicates “with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person, using electronic means … to support severe, repeated, and hostile behavior,” faces a fine and imprisonment up to two years. It is currently being discussed by the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.

Opinion & Analysis: The effects of cyberbullying legislation

New cyberbullying laws give prosecutors the ability to charge cyberbullies directly for their acts. In the Meier case, prosecutors could charge Drew only with violating MySpace’s terms of service, setting a dangerous precedent that could lead to people being charged for innocuous terms of service violations.

Supporters of the laws say that they punish cyberbullying without endangering Internet users’ First Amendment rights. Speaking about the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, Congressman Hulshof said, “This bill establishes a fair legal standard. It sets needed limits for online conduct while protecting free speech.”

However, critics argue that the laws do violate the First Amendment by creating too broad a standard for cyberbullying. On his blog The Volokh Conspiracy, UCLA Professor of Law Eugene Volokh says that the proposed congressional law would criminalize reasonable criticism of public officials.

“My criticism could be perfectly accurate. It could be an expression of my opinion, including on political, social, or religious issues,” he writes. “The desire to cause substantial emotional distress could be prompted by the target’s reprehensible actions or political views, and could be coupled with a genuine attempt to persuade the public. Doesn’t matter: My actions would be a crime.”

Many agree with Volokh, saying that the bill is an example of lawmakers responding to public sentiment without considering the ramifications and possibly creating laws that are unconstitutional.

“As tragic as [Meier’s] suicide was, legislatures must take a step back and look at whether cyberbullying should be illegal. To do otherwise could lead to a 'knee-jerk' reaction to her story, making her the poster child to push the legislation through,” writes Matthew C. Ruedy in the North Carolina Journal of Law & Technology. “Legislatures must also consider whether the proposed anti-cyberbullying laws could have unintended consequences, such as widening the scope of illegal activities on the Internet, and thus unintentionally criminalizing non criminal activities, essentially creating a domino effect.”

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