If Online Harassment Is Harassment... Why Does It Need A Special Law?

from the questions-without-answers dept

There was a tragic story a few weeks ago that I'm sure many of you read about. It involved a teenager who committed suicide after a "boy" she had become friendly with over MySpace stopped talking to her and said he had heard bad things about her. It later came out that the "boy" never existed -- and was actually a former friend in the neighborhood and the friend's mother effectively toying with the girl. There wasn't much to say about the tragedy, though I was wondering how long it would take for people to start blaming online communities or MySpace for such things. That hasn't happened yet, but the town where this happened has now passed a law banning online harassment, with the mayor saying: "After all, harassment is harassment, regardless of the mechanism or tool." That may be true -- but if it is, why isn't anyone asking why there needs to be a separate law for online harassment, if it's already considered harassment? Yes, the situation is tragic, but why the focus on online harassment rather than harassment in general?

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  1. identicon
    Nick, 29 Nov 2007 @ 7:45am

    Need for Updated Laws

    #10 is absolutely correct. I actually wrote a research paper in law school on this topic, though it focused solely on the habit of making spoof social networking profiles to harass others (arguably a bit different), and was actually startled to find that even though many states have harassment laws (but not all), most of them simply do not cover online forms of harassment such as this. In NY, for example, the crime of harassment is limited to following someone around in public places or engaging in a course of conduct that puts someone in fear of personal injury. The lesser crime of harassment would require repeated acts that alarm or annoy and have no legitimate purpose. Neither of these would be at all helpful in this case.

    It's fair to say that cooking up new laws that are purely reactionary and address very narrow and specific behaviors is not good policy. However, neither is fitting new behaviors into existing law whose drafters never contemplated such a development. In the end, it is much better to create new laws to handle new behaviors, but only so long as they are the result of thorough research and thinking. The concept of writing laws for harmful online behavior is sound, the question comes down to the execution of the drafting and application.

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