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Overreaction to online harassment

Because of a past tragedy, lawmakers and prosecutors are becoming overzealous in combating noxious behavior on the Web.

August 22, 2009

The tragic case of Megan Meier, the Missouri teen who committed suicide in 2006 after being bullied on MySpace, is still rippling through the courts and Congress. Meier's tormentors weren't charged locally because Missouri law only barred harassment by mail or phone. Although state legislators have closed that loophole, prosecutors and lawmakers seem determined to even the score by overreacting to noxious behavior online.

In the latest example, 40-year-old Elizabeth Thrasher was charged last week with a felony for allegedly creating a salacious personal ad on Craigslist for a 17-year-old girl who had berated her on MySpace. The bogus ad caused the teen to receive disturbing calls and e-mails. But it seems absurd that Thrasher faces up to four years in state prison for committing the online equivalent of writing "For a good time, call ... " in a well-used bathroom stall. The blame doesn't rest with the state Legislature -- if something's a crime in the physical world, it should be in the virtual one too. The problem is with prosecutors who think that transgressions are automatically magnified if they occur in cyberspace.

Meanwhile, Rep. Linda T. Sanchez (D-Lakewood) and 16 other House members have sponsored a bill to make cyber-bullying a federal crime punishable by up to two years in prison. The measure (HR 1966) would ban using electronic communications to "coerce, intimidate, harass or cause substantial emotional distress" through "severe, repeated and hostile behavior." The bill is so vaguely written, constitutional scholar Eugene Volokh has noted, that it could be used against people who lobbied elected officials, demanded refunds for shoddy goods or organized boycotts online, if their words were "severe" enough. That's why the proposal would have a hard time withstanding a 1st Amendment challenge if it ever became law.

Members of Congress often try to expand the powers of federal prosecutors and courts when state law doesn't produce the results they seek, especially when confronted with cases as heart-wrenching as Meier's. (The U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles even tried to contort a federal anti-hacking law to apply to Meier's tormentors, winning a conviction that was later thrown out by a federal judge.) But harassment is amply addressed by state criminal and civil laws. The Justice Department has far better things to do with its time than to investigate cases like Thrasher's.

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