Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

High-Tech Words Do Hurt: A Modern Makeover Expands Missouri's Harassment Law to Include Electronic Communications

Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

High-Tech Words Do Hurt: A Modern Makeover Expands Missouri's Harassment Law to Include Electronic Communications

Article excerpt

Missouri Revised Statute [section] 565.090

I. INTRODUCTION

Megan Meier was 13 years old when she committed suicide on October 16, 2006. (2) Afterwards, it came to light that she was the victim of "a cruel cyber hoax" that began as a MySpace friendship with a 16 year-old boy named Josh Evans. (3) Soon after the two teenagers became friends, Josh began insulting Megan in various ways. (4) For instance, on October 15, 2006, Josh sent a message saying "'I don't know if I want to be friends with you any longer because I hear you're not nice to your friends.'" (5) Megan's father claimed that that he saw another message from Josh sent on October 16, 2006, that said "th[is] world would be better off without [you]." (6) That evening, Megan committed suicide. (7)

Six weeks after Megan's death, her family received the shocking news that Josh Evans did not exist. (8) Instead, they learned that "Josh Evans" was the creation of a neighborhood mom, Lori Drew, who wanted to see if Megan would say anything negative about Drew's daughter. (9) Despite Josh Evans' deceitful actions, no state charges were brought against any individuals involved in Megan's death. (10) This is because the behavior that prompted Megan to commit suicide was not a criminal act under Missouri law. (11) Sending harassing messages through electronic communications, such as the ones that led to Megan's death, is called cyberbullying. Further, one commentator recently coined suicide as a result of being bullied online as "Bullycide." (12) The Meier incident and others have put pressure on the Missouri Legislature to make internet harassment and cyberbullying a crime by amending [section] 565.090 of the Missouri Revised Statues. (13)

This Article will examine, inter alia, whether actions that qualify as cyberbullying could be considered harassment when done in person. More specifically, Part II of this Article will provide an explanation of cyberbullying, discuss the application of Missouri harassment law before the recent amendments, and detail relevant First Amendment issues as they pertain to harassment statutes. Part III will review Missouri's recently amended harassment statute, Missouri Revised Statute [section] 565.090. Further, Part III will explore the effectiveness of current and pending federal statutes that might prosecute cyberbullies. Part IV will discuss the likely issues that a court must resolve in order to apply the revised statute. Lastly, this article will argue that having an effective federal cyberbullying law is essential to punishing and preventing harassment by electronic means.

II. LEGAL BACKGROUND

A. What Is Cyberbullying?

Bullying is when someone takes repeated action in order to control another person. (14) With the widespread use of the Internet in the United States, a new form of bullying has emerged called "cyberbullying." (15) "'Cyberbullying' is when a child, preteen or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies, or mobile phones." (16) While typical cases of cyberbullying focus on young people, adults can also be involved in such behavior. In fact, Missouri law prohibits both adults and juveniles from committing such acts, and punishes the former more harshly. (17)

People often confuse the terms cyberbullying and cyberstalking. However, the two are different because "cyberstalking often includes credible threats both online and offline, while cyberbullying usually does not." (18) In addition, cyberstalking is dealt with through stalking laws, (19) while cyberbullying is covered in harassment laws.

According to a recent study by the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), forty-three percent of teens were victims of cyberbullying in the last year. (20) Over eighty percent of teens claim that cyberbullying takes place because the perpetrator finds humor in it. …

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