The 2006 suicide of Megan Meier, which came after the girl was harassed online, spurred a flurry of new state laws aimed at cracking down on “cyber-bullying.”
Now some members of Congress are pushing for a federal law against the practice.
The Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act was first introduced last year. But it died in committee.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., introduced the measure again last month and says she believes she has enough support to make the bill law.
“Schoolyard bullies – at least when you went home for the day, you could escape that,” Sanchez said in an interview. “But through an electronic means, texting and Facebook pages, kids can literally be harassed 24 hours a day, seven days a week and have no respite from it.”
She attributed the bill’s quiet death last year to the fact that cyber-bullying is a new concept to many members of Congress who have a dated view of bullying as an unfortunate part of growing up.
Since then, Sanchez said she has worked to educate her colleagues about the extended reach technology gives to bullying. The bill has drawn 17 co-sponsors, among them Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, and Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, whose district includes Megan’s Dardenne Prairie neighborhood.
The legislation would make cyber-bullying a federal crime in an effort to prevent problems Missouri prosecutors faced after Megan’s death.
The girl was 13 when she hanged herself after being harassed over the Internet by someone identifying himself as “Josh” on the social website MySpace.com. Josh turned out to be a creation of a neighbor named Lori Drew, who launched the fake online profile to antagonize Megan.
Police thought Drew was responsible for the suicide, but there was a problem: There was no state law for online harassment. Prosecutors concluded they couldn’t charge Drew with any crime.
But some legal analysts say despite its good intentions, Sanchez’s bill is so broad that it violates the First Amendment.
“This cannot possibly be constitutionally permissible, it cannot possibly be a good idea, it cannot possibly be what the drafters intended, and yet that is what they wrote,” said Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA who specializes in speech, cyberspace and criminal law.
“If it is passed through Congress, I see it being struck down in courts,” Volokh said.
The debate stems from how to define cyber-bullying and when it goes beyond teasing. In the bill, repeated electronic communication meant to cause “substantial emotional distress” to someone can be considered cyber-bullying. Such activity carries a penalty of fines and up to two years in prison.
Volokh gave an example of a girl sending insulting text messages to an ex-boyfriend or posting hurtful statements about him online. Under Sanchez’s law, whether or not this would be severe enough to be considered a crime would be up to the legal system, Volokh said.
“I don’t want my freedom to rest on the judgment of a prosecutor in this kind of situation,” Volokh said.
Sanchez said she is an ardent supporter of the First Amendment and that provisions in the bill have been defined by previous harassment laws and cases.
“The intention with this bill is not to infringe on people’s freedom of speech but rather to protect people,” she said. “Ranting on a blog or sending a mean e-mail would not violate this law.”
Since Megan’s death, several states, including Missouri and Illinois, have filled the judicial holes surrounding online harassment, and some feature more specific parameters than Sanchez’s bill.
In Missouri, for instance, a person can be charged with harassment if he or she sends repeated communication to someone in order to cause distress, fear or intimidation or intentionally threaten or intimidate someone anonymously over the phone or Internet. It is a felony if the person doing the harassing is over 21 and the victim is a minor, or if it’s the second offense.
Still, Sanchez says a national remedy is needed.
“Some states do have … bullying laws on the books, many states don’t, and the laws sort of differ from state to state,” Sanchez said. She hopes a national definition of the crime and standard set of penalties will better serve victims “instead of this patchwork quilt of laws or no law.”
Sanchez’s bill has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee. No hearing date has been scheduled.
Jonathan Godfrey, spokesman for Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said it was too early in the process to forecast if and when the bill would see a hearing.
Paul Sloca, spokesman for Luetkemeyer, expressed similar sentiments.
“I think it is a little too early to be overly optimistic,” he said. “But obviously we think this is an important bill and one we’re going to fight for.”
Part of the reason Megan’s case became nationally known is not that it involved cyber-bullying but because it ended in tragedy.
Jennifer Granick, civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet rights watch group, cautioned against pushing a new law motivated by sympathy.
“It’s an awful tragedy, and I think it’s right for people to care, but we have to be careful about what caring means going forward,” Granick said.
Similar situations might not be common but are well-documented in recent years. A 13-year-old boy in Vermont hanged himself after being harassed online in 2003. In Florida, a 15-year-old boy did the same in 2005.
In Megan’s case, federal prosecutors brought Drew to Los Angeles, where the MySpace offices are based.
Prosecutors shifted their focus, and a jury convicted Drew of three misdemeanor counts of unauthorized access of a computer.
Drew’s official sentencing is scheduled for May 18. A pre-sentence report recommends probation and a $5,000 fine.