MISSOURI — Gov. Matt Blunt signed legislation today thataims to fight cyber-bullying by updating the state’s current harassment and stalking laws to include communicationover the Internet and through other electronic means.
“We must take every step possible to protect our youth and to punish thosewho want to bring them harm,” Blunt said in a written statement. “Socialnetworking sites and technology have opened a new door for criminals and bulliesto prey on their victims, especially children.”
The bill clarifies the definition of unlawful harassment to includeelectronic communication and expands stalking to include two or more actsthrough any means of communication. Harassment is defined as any intentionalconduct that without good cause “frightens, intimidates or causes emotionaldistress.”
The law also requires school boards to implement a written policy requiringadministrators to report harassment and stalking committed on school property tolocal law enforcement. This includes any communication over the Internet orthrough text messages while on school grounds.
Laura Rosenbury, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis,said she believes the bill as written will stand up to First Amendmentchallenges. She compared the bill’s definition of harassment to that of federalworkplace harassment statutes, but noted Missouri’s harassment definition isbroader.
“Ultimately, it would be upheld unless school officials and policeinterpret it broadly,” she said. “It’s up to the discretion of officials andthat’s where there’s a potential to chill protected speech.”
Blunt signed the bill near the neighborhood where 13-year-old Megan Meiercommitted suicide after receiving cruel messages over the Internet.
Megan’s former neighbor, 49-year-old Lori Drew, was indicted last month inLos Angeles in connection with the case. She allegedly created a fake profile ofa 16-year-old boy named Josh and used the profile to find out why Megan wasn’tfriends with her daughter anymore. After several months of friendship with”Josh,” Megan began receiving messages calling her names and saying Josh nolonger wanted to be friends with her because she was not nice to her friends.The last message she received from Josh was the night before her death, whichsaid “the world would be a better place without you.”
Since Megan’s death, several states have taken up legislation to updateharassment laws to include advances in technology. Missouri’s law also increasespenalties for such harassment from a misdemeanor to a felony if the act iscommitted by someone 21 or older against a minor who is 17 or younger.
Doug Abrams, who was on the task force that designed the bill, saidharassment and stalking statutes that do not cover Internet communications are”insufficient” in the protection that they provide.
“The Internet is a toy for some kids, just like a car is a toy for somekids,” said Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri. “They don’trealize how utterly destructive it can be to target someone else with thistoy.”
Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, saidmaking it criminal to cause emotional distress to a teenager is too broad of astandard. For instance, even breaking off a romantic relationship online couldbe an intentional act causing emotional distress.
“As the axiom goes, hard cases make bad law, and in this case, very hardcases make very bad laws,” Goldstein said.