Is it time for an Internet harassment law?
Vail, CO, Colorado
What is harassment?
Used in a variety of legal contexts, “harassment” is words, gestures and actions that tend to annoy, alarm and verbally abuse another person.
Broadly, one commits a petty or misdemeanor harassment if, with purpose to harass another, he or she: Makes a telephone call without the purpose of legitimate communication; insults, taunts or challenges another in a manner likely to provoke a violent or disorderly response; makes repeated communications anonymously, at extremely inconvenient hours or in offensively coarse language; subjects another to offensive touching; or engages in any other course of alarming conduct serving no legitimate purpose.
The Internet is, well … the Internet, the vast sphere of cyberspace upon which we have all come to rely and which has become integrated almost into our corporeal beings. More formally, the Internet may be described as an electronic communications network that connects computer networks and organizational computer facilities around the world.
So what does one have to do with the other, and what has got me thinking about them in a single throw? Let’s tackle one issue at a time.
Because the Internet is, at its core, a means of communication and one may harass another by various means of communication, it stands to reason that one may harass via the Internet. Hang on, though, and keep reading.
Second, and what has me thinking about Internet harassment, is the 2006 case of Megan Meier.
Meier was a 13-year-old from Dardenne Prairie, Mo., who struck up an Internet relationship with a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans. Josh had contacted Megan through her MySpace page. Josh said he had recently moved from Florida to O’Fallon, Mo., and was looking for new friends.
Megan had struggled with her weight for years and was flattered and excited that the boy named Josh, who was, as she described to her mother, “so hot,” appeared to be interested in her and told her over and over again that she was pretty.
After weeks of growing their relationship on line, Josh suddenly cut off the relationship, writing to Megan that he didn’t want to be friends with her anymore because he had heard that she was not very nice to her friends.
Other troubling messages followed. Apparently, he had shared some of Megan’s messages with others. Bulletins popped up that taunted Megan: “Megan is fat,” “Megan is a slut.” Devastating stuff for a 13-year-old who was already unsure of herself.
The day after Josh “broke up with her,” Megan hanged herself. It was three weeks before her 14th birthday. She was looking forward to her birthday party. She and her mother had bought her a new dress. Her father never saw her in it until her funeral.
The day she died, Megan’s father went to her MySpace page and saw the message from Josh that was, apparently, the last thing Megan saw before she killed herself: “Everybody in O’Fallon knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you… The world would be a better place without you.”
Six weeks after Megan’s death, a neighbor called. When the Meiers met with her, she told them Josh Evans never existed. Josh had been created by adults, the parents of a former girlfriend of Megan’s with whom she’d had a falling out. The neighbor said she had been contacted to join in on the “joke” but had declined. Her conscience hurt her because she had not come forward before the “joke” had gone terribly awry.
What about a law?
The intent of the former girlfriend’s parents, they said, was “to find out what Megan was saying online” about their daughter. No criminal charges have been filed. At the time of her death, there were no laws on the books in Missouri with which to address the parents’ actions.
That has changed; on the books now, in the town of Dardenne Prairie, the crime of Internet harassment is punishable by up to a $500 fine and 90 days in jail, what seems little consolation to the grieving parents.
You might say, “There should be a law,” perhaps a federal law regulating Internet harassment but, to date, no such law exists. In fact, no such law exists in many places at all.
Clearly, there are free-speech and First Amendment issues, and often, the law takes years to catch up to new spins on old themes and new technology. And while federal laws are, by sheer size and reach, sometimes more difficult to fashion than state or local laws, perhaps the federal government should follow the brave lead of towns such as Dardenne Prairie and Florissant, Mo., which have both found ways to balance the public interest in such reasonable restraint against the personal right to unfettered freedom of expression. It stands to reason that if one can be restrained from harassing by telephone, similar restraints to harassment via the Internet could equally apply.
There is currently no such law in Colorado. Perhaps it’s time.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He is a member of the Colorado Bar Association Legal Ethics Committee and is a former adjunct professor of law. Robbins lectures for Continuing Legal Education for attorneys in the areas of real estate, business law and legal ethics. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins can be reached at 926-4461 or by e-mail at email@example.com.