INTERNET LAW - Missouri Governor Signs Cyber-Bullying Bill into Law

IBLS Editor
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On June 30th, Missouri governor, Matt Blunt, signed a bill updating state laws against harassment by removing the requirement in the legislation requiring that such harassing communication be written or made over the telephone. Now, harassment from computers, text messages and other electronic devices may also be considered illegal. The law is SB 818 (HCS SS SCS SBs 818 & 795), titled "Modifies various provisions relating to stalking and harassment.”

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

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On June 30th, Missouri governor, Matt Blunt, signed a bill updating state laws against harassment by removing the requirement in the legislation requiring that such harassing communication be written or made over the telephone. Now, harassment from computers, text messages and other electronic devices may also be considered illegal. The law is SB 818 (HCS SS SCS SBs 818 & 795), titled "Modifies various provisions relating to stalking and harassment."

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

The Governor signed the bill at a library in St. Charles County, not far from the neighborhood where a 13-year-old girl, Megan Meier, hanged herself in 2006 after receiving taunting messages over the Internet.  The law was passed after the national outcry that followed the suicide of Meier. Megan's neighbor- 49-year-old Lori Drew- is said to have impersonated a teenage boy who wooed Meier over the social networking site MySpace. Megan Meier was a 13-year-old girl whom Drew's daughter did not like, so the mother decided to play a mean-spirited prank on the girl.

Lori Drew was indicted in May in Los Angeles in connection with Megan's death and prosecutors claim Drew and others created the faux MySpace persona of a 16-year-old boy named "Josh Evans."  Drew used the profile to find out why Megan wasn't friends with her daughter anymore, pretending to have a romantic interest. After 6-weeks of friendship, "Josh" turned against Megan and she began receiving increasingly hostile messages calling her names and saying Josh no longer wanted to be her pal because she was not nice to her friends. The last message she received from Josh was the night before she died, and it claimed she was "cruel" and a "bad person." It ended by stating: "the world would be a better place without you." Megan, who had long suffered from depression, took her life almost immediately after the incident.

When the full story came to light, and public demand grew for the mother's prosecution, it turned out that what Ms. Drew had done, while clearly malicious, was not against the law as the Missouri Statutes were then written. So the Missouri Legislature and Governor Blunt decided to correct this problem. The new law adds to unlawful harassment electronic means of communication.

The amended law also requires school boards to create a written policy requiring schools to report harassment and stalking committed on school property to local police, including such done via the Internet.

The old Harassment law made the crime a Class A misdemeanor. Under this new bill, it remains a Class A misdemeanor unless "1) committed by a person twenty-one years of age or older against a person seventeen years of age or younger; or 2) the person has previously committed the crime of harassment. In such cases, harassment is a class D felony."

The new law penalizes those who knowingly communicate with another person who is, or who purports to be, seventeen years of age or younger and recklessly frightens, intimidates, or causes emotional distress to such other person.  Also, the new law makes it a crime "to engage, without good cause, in any other act with the purpose to frighten, intimidate, or cause emotional distress to another person, cause such person to be frightened, intimidated, or emotionally distressed, and such person's response to the act is one of a person of average sensibilities considering the person's age."

The law modifies the term "harasses" to include: "conduct directed at a specific person that serves no legitimate purpose that would cause a reasonable person to be frightened or intimidated, as well as emotionally distressed. A person need only harass a person purposely, rather than purposely and repeatedly, to commit the crime of stalking or aggravated stalking."

The law also defines a "credible threat" as "those made with the intent to cause the person who is the target to reasonably fear for his or her family's safety or family's pet's or livestock's safety, and not only his or her own safety."

Since Megan' Meier's suicide, several other U.S. states have created legislation to update their harassment laws to include advances in technology.

IBLS Editor

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