Task force considering changes to state law on Internet harassment

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A state task force on Internet harassment heard a clear message from the mother of a teenage girl who took her life after being taunted online -- current laws have not kept up with changing technology.

"I can start MySpace [accounts] on every single one of you, and spread rumors about every single one of you, and what's going to happen to me? Nothing," Tina Meier told the task force at its first meeting in Jefferson City, Mo.

Meier's 13-year-old daughter Megan committed suicide last year in a case that has captured international attention. Authorities say Megan was teased on her MySpace page by a fictional teenage boy named "Josh." A neighborhood mother and two girls played a role in creating the hoax when they wanted to keep tabs on Megan's gossip.

A prosecutor decided the mother's actions did not constitute a violation of state laws against stalking, harassment or child endangerment.

Gov. Matt Blunt's Internet Harassment Task Force met to review existing laws governing these types of cases and discuss potential changes. The five-hour discussion included current state and federal laws regulating stalking and child endangerment, applicable city ordinances, the role of social networking providers like MySpace and Facebook, and increasing parental awareness.

Only 10 to 15 harassment complaints are called in each year to Cape Girardeau police, and just a fraction of those involve the Internet, said Cape Girardeau police spokesmen Sgt. Barry Hovis.

In Cape Girardeau, harassment includes any written or verbal threat, whether by phone or e-mail, to commit a felony, Hovis said. Under the city ordinance, what happened to Megan Meier would not likely constitute harassment, he said.

However, a high school senior in Cape Girardeau was recently issued a summons for harassment by Internet, in connection with an alleged online threat to "kill" another girl when they got on the soccer field, according to police reports.

Blunt formed the 15-member task force after Megan's case was publicized. The group, which includes legislators, academics and law enforcement officials, hopes to have a draft law written to submit to state lawmakers when they convene in January.

The task force is at the forefront of new approaches nationwide to rein in Internet harassment, said Braden Cox, a lobbyist with the industry group NetChoice Coalition in Washington, D.C. Missouri is the first state to created a task force like this one, which includes academic and Internet industry members, he said.

"States have acted in this area, but they have done so unilaterally," Cox said.

University of Missouri law professor Doug Abrams said U.S. courts have largely upheld the right of people to say things anonymously, whether on the Internet or a street corner.

But it could be constitutional to outlaw using fake identities online to harass someone or solicit sex.

Lawmakers could "make it a misdemeanor to misrepresent the sender's identity ... that's what goes on in a lot of these cases," Abrams said.

Industry groups are not necessarily opposed to new regulations, said MySpace lobbyist William Guidera, who is a task force member. For example, Internet companies supported passage of a law that make it illegal for someone to lie about their age when setting up a sexual encounter online, Guidera said.

State Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, has already filed a bill in the state Senate to ban online harassment. State Rep. Joe Smith, R-St. Charles, said he would introduce an identical bill in the House.

Staff writer Bridget DiCosmo contributed to this report.

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