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
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2007 @ 2:51pm

    Why did they need to come up with hate crimes? Last time I checked, tying someone up to a fence and beating them to death was still murder. Dragging someone to death from a pickup truck was still murder.

    Politicians write laws, thats what they do. I just wish they would push for enforcement for the ones we already have.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Oliver Wendell Jones, 28 Nov 2007 @ 2:59pm

    Two Points

    1) I feel that there needs to be a minimum waiting period for creating laws following a tragedy of any sort - big or small. You can't make good laws in a short period of time. There needs to be time enough for constitutional review, public feedback, etc. before it gets signed into law. Lawmakers who respond rapidly like this are just trying to earn brownie points with their constituents by claiming "look how fast I took care of this!"

    2) There is a difference between "outlawing online harassment" and "legally defining harassment to include online harassment" and if the law simply adds online harassment, then it's probably not bad - if it makes it a whole new crime then hopefully it's not like so many other instances where they've taken something that's been illegal for years and slapped "internet/online" onto it added new fines that are more up-to-date, so that if you commit the offline version of the crime you pay a $50 fine but if it's done online with the new law in place, it's suddenly a $50,000 fine.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Arnie, 28 Nov 2007 @ 3:00pm

    Couldn't agree with you more.

    You are absolutely correct they write laws to write laws. The "hate crime" law is ridiculous.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2007 @ 3:03pm

    Re: your comment about hate crimes

    Hate crimes ARE different than crimes of passion. Being caught as "temporarily insane" by finding your lover in the arms of another might inspire a response which might have legal ramifications. If you are a racist, a bigot and someone who believes violence somehow is your way to play dress-up to make-believe you're better than the person you've victimized -- then the gene pool needs an extra special gallon of chlorine to deal with that type of repeat-crime mentality.

    Again, hate crimes are a distinction of the motivation. Law against murder (or harassment) or not, you can often get sympathy from a judge or the court if your situation is the slightest bit understandable. The distinction of "hate crime" is purely the legal system recognizing there is absolutely no sympathy due the perpetrator (if proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Shun, 28 Nov 2007 @ 3:08pm

    Gives them something to do, I guess

    I think the principle reason is stated by #1, above.

    Given that, the on-line world allows the in-curious user a degree of anonymity/pseudonymity. Because the user's face/voice was hidden, in this case, because the user was able to hide behind a screen-name, the victim had no sign that the person she was talking to was not the actual person pictured in her mind.

    She believed she was talking to a real boy. There is no law that says you must always represent yourself on-line as the person you are off-line. This would hinder such things are role-play. Although the criminal possibilities are evident (as shown by this case), there is still a very high value placed on pseudonymity, in general, when it comes to internet message boards, comments, etc.

    The parents can pursue an intentional infliction of emotional distress or wrongful death action. Should the legislature get involved? Only if this activity is not covered by existing law.

    I think it's enough that there are laws against "harassment" and uniform enforcement of those laws will serve to deter these types of incidents. If the law is not enforced, or is enforced in a discriminatory manner, then fewer people will obey the law. Simple risk-reward calculation.

    There used to be a time when "internet" crimes were prosecuted under federal wire fraud-types of statutes. It'd be a shame to create a whole new crime which could "only happen on the Internet."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2007 @ 3:43pm

    Hate crime laws are the things we love to hate.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    GeneralEmergency (profile), 28 Nov 2007 @ 4:10pm

    Short Answer????

    These laws happen because political self promotion/aggrandizement while championing phantom causes is **much, much** easier work than making government work more effectively and cost less.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    me, 28 Nov 2007 @ 4:23pm

    I think this law was created so "fast" because everyone was outraged at what happened and no one not even the feds could find a law where this particular situation fit.

    I feel public shaming of this woman her husband and their daughter are in order for the rest of their lives. I aslo believe all tubes from this family should be cut and or tied. I am STFU and GBTW

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    brwyatt, 28 Nov 2007 @ 5:28pm


    I once heard (or read) that "Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made." (Otto von Bismarck).

    Unfortunately, until we start electing people to office who actually want to do their job and are intelligent, its better just to ignore and laugh at these sorts of things...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Deirdre, 28 Nov 2007 @ 5:31pm

    What does their current law say?

    Before a court can convict someone of harassment, there has to be a law that defines harassment. If that definition doesn't include internet activity as a method, chances are the offender will not be convicted.

    Many harassment laws are only modern enough to define telephone calls and late night ring-&-hangups as harassment that can be performed without being face to face. A good defense lawyer would be saying, "My client did not meet the plaintiff personally, nor make any phone calls. Therefore she is innocent of harassment."

    This town might be overreacting, but without reading their harassment law it is not possible to say they don't need to modernize it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2007 @ 5:54pm

    Instead of amending the current law, they are going to make a new one and probably name it after the girl who passed, just to appease the parents so they don't sue because nothing was originally done about the situation until all the pressure from readers online.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2007 @ 6:02pm

    Tragic situation? I lol'd at the situation then at the law

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Max Powers, 28 Nov 2007 @ 6:48pm

    Always will be Suicides

    Nothing will stop some people from suicide, it's much too complex. Family's of the deceased are always looking to blame someone or something to take away any guilt from them or their kid who did such a desperate act.

    Hate crimes? Yea, the person who committed the crime probably hated the person he murdered or assaulted.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Shalkar, 28 Nov 2007 @ 6:57pm

    My Opinion is:

    What the hell? That neighbor boy's mother didn't get in trouble? She is RESPONSIBLE for what happened to that girl! She may have not physically been the one to kill the girl, but through her actions it is her fault and her fault alone that the girl killed herself. If that was my daughter who did that, I'm pretty sure I'd kill anyone and everyone responsible in any way. Why, instead, didn't they make a law making it illegal to purposely harm somebody psychologically that had the effect, intentional or not, of "making" the person commit suicide. THAT would be a more direct response to the situation at hand...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Barrenwaste, 28 Nov 2007 @ 7:33pm

    Re: My Opinion

    The mother is not responsible for a neihbor girl comitting suicide, no matter what the mother said. You cannot "make" a person comitt suicide. Someone CHOOSES to, or they don't. That you consider this akin to murder is indicative of our societies "blame everyone" psychosis. Yes, psychosis. Everyone gets insulted and humiiated. It is a part of life, often enough a powerful motivator to conforming to societal mores. That this girl was not strong enough to cope with it or did not have a strong enough support base is not the neihbor ladies fault. Was it a nasty thing they did to her? Yes. But not criminal, despite what the laws may say. They lead her on, which was a despicable act, but if it is ilegal then most every american should be imprisoned. I know I've been lead on a few times, I'm sure everybody else has as well. We just mark those people in the asshole column and move on. The reality of it is that most likely they normally aren't bad people, just people doing something petty. People are only outraged now because she killed herself. Tragic, but not the neihbors fault. Anybody who would kill themselves and cite this as the catalyst clearly has psychological problems. To be honest, anybody who would comitt suicide has massive psychological problems. These problems are generaly in the persons inability to cope with NORMAL daily life, not in the actions of those around them. Life is not all roses and candy canes and it isn't meant to be. Without problems to overcome we can not discover self worth nor develop a sense of pride and accomplishment. I do not advocate what they did, but neither can I call it criminal. It was simply an act in bad taste, and we are all guilty of that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Law Student, 28 Nov 2007 @ 9:11pm

    Civil action much?

    The first thing that came to mind when I heard about this unfortunate tragedy was that although there may not be any criminal liability for the woman involved the parents could probably bring a civil action against her. While I'm not familiar with the specifics of MO law there are a variety of tort theories on which they could base an action. First of all there is intention infliction of emotional distress. Hard to argue that the woman involved was unaware of the impact her behavior would have, especially in light of the comments she is purported to have made. If by some chance it could be disputed that it was intentional, then there alse exists a cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Moreover, while the girl had attempted to commit suicide before, certainly but for the intervention of this poor excuse for a human being she would not have committed suicide at that time. The woman should be subjected to a long, costly and public trial.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Barrenwaste, 28 Nov 2007 @ 9:32pm

    Re: Civil Action

    First I would like to state that I detest most civil action suits. Having said that, yes, they can bring about a civil action against the neihbors. But doing so would be no more moraly upright than the neihbors actions. I understand the grief the family of the girl is going through, and I sympathise. That shouldn't give them the right however, to compound the grief of the neihbors nor blame them for thier daughters actions. Ok, say they do bring civil action against the neihbors. Now say that the neihbor kid, out of "shame and mortification" due to the public censor and humiliation commits suicide. Are the family members of the girl now liable for the neihbors tragedy? After all, by this thinking, thier actions brought about the suicide. No. No matter how you look at this the neihbors are not at fault and should not be found so. Bringing an action against them would be legalised revenge, not justice. This is simply, and sadly, a case of a child unable to cope with life. Think about it. Do you want your child dating and or intamately involved with a suicidal individual? No, because you don't want them to go through the pain and emotional distress this individual will bring them. In that sense, a relationship with the girl would be "bad". I am not defending the actions taken by the neihbors, but the people of the area are taking a tragedy and performing the American Two-Step with it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Scott Spinola, 28 Nov 2007 @ 9:53pm

    Re: Re: your comment about hate crimes

    Hate crimes are nothing more than thought crimes and a statement from the legal system that not all life is equal. The government has determined that the REASON an evil bastard kills someone is more important than the fact that someone actually got killed! There is something fundamentally frightening about punishing motivation rather than actions. When we allow the government to determine that some thoughts are worse than others, we are all in trouble.

    Murder is murder. Harassment is harassment. Laws ought to punish action, not motivation.

    As to this silly online harassment law, this is the same thing as making cell phone use while driving illegal while it is perfectly legal to eat a cheeseburger, drink your coffee, change the radio station, and yell at your kids in the back seat. Distraction is distraction. Why differentiate?

    Someone said it best above: the job of a politician is to make laws so they do, however silly they are.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2007 @ 10:29pm

    Motivation should always be considered in a crime. Ones motives is always a central tenant in justice.

    Now justice is hard to find I admit. Think of this. A woman pedophile gets a suspended sentence, 2 years in jail, probation : a man gets 8 to 15 years in federal prison for the same crime. Was the womans motive more pure? More loving ?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Nov 2007 @ 2:29am

    I think what the woman and her family did to this poor girl is criminal and I hope they find a way to make them pay, even though apparently it won't be with jail time.

    That said, online harassment IS NOTHING LIKE REAL LIFE HARASSMENT. For one thing, if you're walking home from school and are jumped by some high school kids who ridicule you, physically shove you around, insult you and embarrass you -- there is no OFF button.

    Second, what comes next - if I'm a fat person and there are some people online talking about how all fat people should die and are worthless and their presence in public make them simply want to puke and it makes me feel really bad, should I be able to charge them with harassment? Or is this only going to apply to pretty white girls and people with alternate sexualities?

    Third, if rather than reducing the entire internet to a level of conversation that would not hurt or offend a twelve year old girl, how about the parents grow the hell up and monitor their child? Especially if they KNOW she is susceptible to depression and ridicule, which was the entire reason the PARENTS encouraged her to set up a myspace account in the first place!

    And finally - if we're going to criminalize "online" harassment, then we should criminalize parents not talking to their children and sloughing them off when they're "feeling bad".

    You see, as much as I fucking detest the people who emotionally tortured this girl over the internet, from the safety of their family home down the street - her own parents would absolutely be found somewhat culpable in civil court (since civil court basis findings and judgments on degree of responsibility).

    While the other family is significantly responsible for what happened to her and their intentions were vicious and inhuman - the fact is that this girl's parents set her up with a myspace account, knew she had some emotional issues, was taking medications and then when she came to her parents for help because she felt she had been kicked in the gut by "a boy who really liked her and then turned on her", instead of pausing and addressing the problem, her mother yelled at her - because she "was upset at her for some of the language she was using on line".

    If the parents had given her some degree of attention. Perhaps for even five minutes, when she was coming to them with her heart on her sleeve that day, she might not have gone up to her bedroom and hung herself a few minutes later.

    Now, the other thing I want to bring up is -- why is the mother down the street not being brought up on sex crime charges? An ADULT was pretending to be A CHILD in order to flirt with A CHILD. If a man did that, he'd end up on "to catch a predator" and be run out of town. How is it that it's okay for this woman to do that -- and even worse, do that to the end of emotional torture and coaxing the girl to suicide?

    I also wonder if this entire thing would come out differently if it wasn't a "mother" doing this but some guy. If it was a guy, he would be "a monster" and they'd be suggesting that he gets some weird sexual thrill out of convincing a girl to kill herself.

    Oh, also -- wasn't there someone who was charged for ENCOURAGING someone to kill themselves via a chat room awhile back -- resulting in the "victim" killing themselves?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. 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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    known coward, 29 Nov 2007 @ 8:07am

    well the law was passed

    Because the prosecutor initially said that he could not prosecute the harasser in question under the existing statutes. Please see http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-suicide22nov22,1,2129665.story?track=crosspromo &coll=la-headlines-nation&ctrack=1&cset=true Personally i think the woman in question should be killed, but hey that is just my opinion.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    Bill, 29 Nov 2007 @ 10:47am

    Crimal intent

    Lori Drew created the Josh Evans persona. She and her daughter were behind the persona that interacted with and lead to Megan's suicide. If the Drews knew that Megan was suicidal then they should be facing criminal charges.

    When people are suicidal they lack a functional support structure in their life. The persona is quoted saying "the world would be better without her", which is quite damning. It is incriminating, as it expresses intent to persuade Megan to kill herself.

    If Lori had created the Josh Evans persona and casually interacted with Megan as a friend. That is simple roleplay. However, she created the persona purposely for deceiving Megan. At the very lease this should fall under the child protection laws. However, taking it to the next level of telling Megan to kill herself leaves no uncertainty as to Lori's intent. Lori may not have put the belt around Megan's neck, but she sure helped kick the chair out from under her. While the fight that Megan had with her mother was the final straw, it's obvious that if Megan had not been steered towards suicide by Lori Drew, she probably would be alive today.

    Creation of the online harassment law just demonstrates how out of touch politicians are with reality. This wasn't a minor issue of harassment, it was manipulation that ended in death.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    rEdEyEz, 29 Nov 2007 @ 11:37am

    Please send help

    ...Sounds like the entire community is looney.

    Too much lead/mercury content in the aquifer? Inbreeding?


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Nov 2007 @ 12:37pm

    Re: Please send help

    lol. Seriously.

    It's always these "emo" kids that do stupid things on online communities like Myspace that always get civil issues involved. Yes, I think that it was a terrible thing for the participants to do to the girl. I especially think that it is juvenile and ridiculous of the mother to do it, because.... well they're an adult.

    But, for them to be criminally charge that girl and her mother for what they did isn't right because they didn't force that girl to commit suicide. Let's just say... that the boy was actually real and he was doing all the talking to the girl that committed suicide. Would they charge him for harassment? Maybe these things he heard were true?

    My $0.02.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. identicon
    Clueby4, 29 Nov 2007 @ 2:44pm

    New Law - You must be 18+ to use the internet.

    This is a unique situation and the "interwebs" aspect is being spun as usual . Apparently they knew the girl, so the magical internet was no more of a factor then the air in their lungs.

    I love how no mention of the girl's criminally negligent and worthless parents. If she was that mentally unstable why wasn't she being treated. The simple fact that she had unmonitored internet access alone seals the negligence assessment in my opinion.

    I think a nice simple law to put the responsibility back were it belongs is in order. No unmonitored access to the internet for children.

    BTW "Hate crimes" like "free market" as well as "excited delirium" are make believe nonsense terms like "tooth fairy" or "boogeyman" if you find yourself using them check your keyboard for drool.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 29 Nov 2007 @ 4:45pm

    then I lol'd at the people who are taking the stupidity of a suicidal person too seriously

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. identicon
    marla, 30 Nov 2007 @ 6:19am


    I think it's reallty terrible that this woman caused this beautifull teenager to give up her life!It was on the news yesterday and they know who the lady is!She was the mother of a friend,or former friend of this girl,and was a few houses down.This woman was very cruel!And I hope she gets locked up for murder!
    I do get tired of hearing about bad things happening concerning myspace all the time!But it's not myspaces fault!I love myspace!It's some people trying to give it a bad name by doing their mean or horrid stuff!
    All I can say is keep myspace,but throw away the bad guy's,and gal's!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. identicon
    Bill, 30 Nov 2007 @ 1:08pm


    #26, "If she was that mentally unstable why wasn't she being treated. The simple fact that she had unmonitored internet access alone seals the negligence assessment in my opinion."

    Did you read the story? Megan was on meds and her parents did monitor her internet use. However she was a teen and as such had the liberty of not having her parent gawking over her shoulder 24/7. While it was irresponsible for her mother to have an argument while knowing her daughter's instability, the parents are not the ones to blame. If the parents drove Megan to suicide then yes, they deserve your incrimination. In this case though, they contributed but did not instigate Megan's demise.

    #27, death is a serious issue...obviously you lack the maturity to grasp such reasoning.

    #28, you're absolutely right. MySpace is simply a tool, it should not be held responsible for what users do with it. It's akin to saying that music and video games instigate teen suicide. Pure rubbish.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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