Franklin James Cook

Judge Overturns Verdict in Cyber-Harrassment Case

In Grief, Media, Prevention on July 5, 2009 at 8:59 am

Lori Drew — the Missouri woman who created an online hoax that triggered a series of events ending in the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier — will be acquitted of the charges for which she was previously found guilty. The Los Angeles Times reports that

The decision by U.S. District Judge George H. Wu, which will not become final until he files a written ruling, was a blow to prosecutors who had hoped to send the message that cyber-bullying is a crime. Wu had repeatedly delayed sentencing to consider a defense motion to dismiss the entire case.

U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O’Brien, whose office prosecuted the woman, said after the decision was announced that the law needed to be strengthened. “We call it cyber-bullying and we don’t have a law to address it,” he said.

A Wired News article by John Abell summarizes the point of view of those who support the judge’s decision:

Drew could be ostracized, she can be sued for damages in a civil proceeding, she can become a pariah. I would not like to know her. I am not a lawyer, but for the state to deny her liberty for lying when she created an account on a social network would be excessive and chilling and imperil hundreds of thousands of people who, while doing the TOS [terms of service] version of jaywalking, set themselves up for selective prosecution if some chain of evidence or events can associate them to someone else’s tragedy …

Wu was correct to conclude that conviction would have made unelected legislators of the people who create the terms of service for any site, conditions almost nobody reads and which are chiefly aimed at indemnifying the owners for the behavior of their customers and only consequentially enabling nice sandbox play.

“It basically leaves it up to a website owner to determine what is a crime,” Wu said on Thursday. “And therefore it criminalizes what would be a breach of contract.”

MSNBC’s “Today Show” on Friday features an interview with Tina Meier:

“As Megan’s mom, I wanted to see her go to jail, because I think it needed to set a precedent. I think it needed to let people know: You get on the computer, you use it as a weapon to hurt, to harm, to harass people, this is not something that people can just walk away from.”

Still, Meier said, her daughter’s death focused attention on cyber-bullying and led to several state laws and a proposed federal law to address the growing problem. In that sense, she said, there is some justice for her tragedy.

“For me, because we’ve continued to be able to get the word out and hopefully share the story and hopefully make changes in households, making teens maybe think once or twice, absolutely I think there is justice in Megan’s name.”

For important background about children and bullying on the Internet, see the previous SPNAC post “Cyberlaws Are Coming into Play around Internet Safety,” which features an insightful discussion among experts on cybersafety for children, “Protecting Kids in the Digital Age,” a roundtable from the 2008 Tech Policy Summit.

Also see the related SPNAC post “Verdict Shows Parents, Internet Should Both Protect Kids.”

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