On July 2, a federal judge overturned guilty verdicts rendered by the jury against Lori Drew, 50, who was accused of participating in a cyber bullying scheme against 13-year-old Megan Meier, who later committed suicide.

This case demonstrates why we need federal laws to stop cyber bullying, harassment and abuse.

The facts in the case were agreed upon even by Drew.  She set-up a MySpace account under an assumed name, “Josh Evans,” that was used by her daughter and an employee to harass, bully and abuse 13-year-old Megan Meier.  It is not clear what other actions Drew took to use or promote the use of the site.  After many attacks on Megan, the fake identity eventually encouraged her to commit suicide.  The three perpetrators would not admit who sent that message.

While that sounds straightforward and obviously wrong, and most people react with outrage, there are no Federal laws to prevent such attacks.  Since there are no laws making the cyber bullying, harassment and abusive actions of Lori Drew, her daughter and her employee a felony, prosecutors had to bring weak charges based on unauthorized computer access under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Despite difficulties in stretching the application of these laws to cover the cyber bullying, a jury found Lori Drew guilty of three misdemeanor counts in the case.  However, the judge overturned the jury and acquitted Drew of the charges.  Some of the arguments for the defense were:

  • The three bullies didn’t know the terms of agreement for setting up their MySpace account because they hadn’t read the MySpace contract they agreed to.
  • Stretching the laws to cover their actions could set dangerous legal precedents.

Even though we can follow the legal arguments, the sense of outrage still remains.

This situation makes an obvious case for the need for strong Federal anti-cyber bullying laws. If there were clear laws and stiff penalties against, for example, using sites to defame, embarrass, harm, abuse, threaten, slander or harass third parties the case against the three people would have been different.  In addition, we must not offer people anonymity or secret identities to attack other people online.

Of course these laws would infringe on free speech and some people’s desires to create secret identities online.  Which is more important, protecting adults and children against anonymous attacks or free speech?

In the case of the suicide of Megan Meier, had Lori Drew’s daughter accosted Megan in person, laying forth whatever complaints she had, saying whatever vindictive and nasty things she wanted to say, the situation would have been very different.  Megan would have been able to face her accuser.  She would have known her accuser’s personal agenda.  She could have argued or ignored the attacks.  But online attacks through a false identity are a very different matter.

Of course lawyers debate legal precedents.  But we all know the protection we’d want against anonymous people who put signs or graffiti on our homes or burn crosses on our lawns.  We clearly see the need to regulate these actions, even if they aren’t direct attacks with a deadly weapon.  Cyber bullying, harassment and abuse require the same regulation.

Lori Drew and her attorney are trying to drum up sympathy for her.  They say that she’s had to pay legal fees and move from Missouri due to the publicity and anger her family has faced.  They may not have envisioned the final consequences of their hoax, but once we go down the pathway of harassment, bullying and abuse, we can’t control the results.

As parents, this case also should make us question our children’s use of social networking sites like MySpace.  I always recommend drawing firm lines that encourage face-to-face friends and prohibit virtual friends, who, by definition, aren’t real friends.

Resource Cited: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2009/07/drew_court/

Ben Leichtling, Ph.D. is author of the books and CDs “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids” and “Eliminate the High cost of Low Attitudes.” He is available for coaching, consulting and speaking.  To find practical, real-world tactics to stop bullies and bullying at home, school, work and in relationships, see his web site (http://www.BulliesBeGone.com) and blog (http://www.BulliesBeGoneBlog.com).

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