State bill could make cyber harassment a felony

Wednesday, January 30, 2008 | 9:16 p.m. CST; updated 3:02 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The 2006 suicide of a St. Charles teen has presented lawmakers with the difficult challenge of attempting to regulate Internet behavior they believe to be harassing or potentially emotionally damaging.

Hearings have occurred in Jefferson City throughout the week to review legislation that seeks to limit cyber harassment. That includes Monday’s testimony by Tina Meier, the mother of a teen who committed suicide after receiving hurtful messages over the social networking Web site MySpace.

If a bill proposed by Sen. Scott Rupp, R-St. Louis, passes through the Senate Judiciary Committee, Missouri legislators could be faced with complicated questions regarding the constitutionality of legislation restricting the use of harassing language over the Internet.

John Coffman, legislative consultant for the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, said Wednesday that electronic communication should not be subject to special laws that target it specifically and that the proposed legislation is “overbroad and clearly unconstitutional.”

The testimony Monday centered on Rupp’s bill, which would make cyber harassment criminal in response to the suicide and complaints he’s received about electronic harassment.

Meier’s daughter, Megan, had begun communication on MySpace with a 16-year-old boy that lasted for four and a half weeks. The conversations were described by her mother as typical correspondence between teenagers. Meier also said she and her husband monitored Megan’s MySpace page regularly to ensure her safety.

“I had the password (to her MySpace account),” Meier said. “We knew of the content. It was very nice communication going back and forth as far as telling her she was nice, beautiful, these types of things.”

On Oct. 15 and 16, 2006, Megan’s MySpace account began to fill up with hurtful messages from the boy’s account and other MySpace accounts.

“For about 20 minutes, she was up in her room, and I had a horrible feeling, went up and found her hanging in her closet,” Meier said.

According to Meier, the profile of the 16-year-old boy that communicated with Megan was the work of an adult neighbor who created the false account with her 13-year-old daughter and 18-year-old part-time employee in order to harass the teen. An FBI investigation found that no crime had been committed by the Meiers’ neighbors.

The bill has the support of a Missouri Internet advocacy group and St. Louis law enforcement and is the product of a task force that was called by Gov. Matt Blunt following Megan’s suicide.

Coffman said he believes current Missouri statutes “go too far, and that this would push it ever further.”

Coffman also raised objections to a clause in the bill that prohibits certain types of anonymous electronic communication. He said Internet users should not lose the right to free speech if they communicate anonymously over the Internet.

The task force’s chairman, Public Safety Director Mark James, testified that the legislation’s drafting was a meticulous process and that the task force accounted for a wide range of opinions, including law enforcement officials, an MU law professor and bipartisan lawmakers.

But some state senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee said the bill’s wording is vague and could run into problems with regards to its constitutionality, most notably to a clause that defines cyber harassment as “using coarse language offensive to a person of average sensibility.”

Committee Chairman Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County, said the definition of the term “average sensibility” could mean different things to different people.

“If somebody uses ‘H-E-double-L’ with me, I feel like that’s coarse language,” Bartle said. “It’s not language that we allow our children to use in the house. Sen. Graham may have a very different opinion of the word ‘H-E-double-L.’ ”

Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, also serves on the committee.

The proposed legislation would also make the crime of cyber harassment a felony offense if committed by an adult over 21 against a child under the age of 17.

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