Mo. governor signs law against cyber-bullying

MISSOURI -- Gov. Matt Blunt signed legislation today that aims to fight cyber-bullying by updating the state's current harassment and stalking laws to include communication over the Internet and through other electronic means.

"We must take every step possible to protect our youth and to punish those who want to bring them harm," Blunt said in a written statement. "Social networking sites and technology have opened a new door for criminals and bullies to prey on their victims, especially children."

The bill clarifies the definition of unlawful harassment to include electronic communication and expands stalking to include two or more acts through any means of communication. Harassment is defined as any intentional conduct that without good cause "frightens, intimidates or causes emotional distress."

The law also requires school boards to implement a written policy requiring administrators to report harassment and stalking committed on school property to local law enforcement. This includes any communication over the Internet or through 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 Amendment challenges. She compared the bill's definition of harassment to that of federal workplace harassment statutes, but noted Missouri's harassment definition is broader.

"Ultimately, it would be upheld unless school officials and police interpret it broadly," she said. "It's up to the discretion of officials and that's where there's a potential to chill protected speech."

Blunt signed the bill near the neighborhood where 13-year-old Megan Meier committed suicide after receiving cruel messages over the Internet.

Megan's former neighbor, 49-year-old Lori Drew, was indicted last month in Los Angeles in connection with the case. She allegedly created a fake profile of a 16-year-old boy named Josh and used the profile to find out why Megan wasn't friends with her daughter anymore. After several months of friendship with "Josh," Megan began receiving messages calling her names and saying Josh no longer 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, which said "the world would be a better place without you."

Since Megan's death, several states have taken up legislation to update harassment laws to include advances in technology. Missouri's law also increases penalties for such harassment from a misdemeanor to a felony if the act is committed 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, said harassment 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 some kids," said Abrams, a law professor at the University of Missouri. "They don't realize how utterly destructive it can be to target someone else with this toy."

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said making it criminal to cause emotional distress to a teenager is too broad of a standard. For instance, even breaking off a romantic relationship online could be an intentional act causing emotional distress.

"As the axiom goes, hard cases make bad law, and in this case, very hard cases make very bad laws," Goldstein said.

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Bullying 2.0 Spring 2008 Report